A Matter of Pride
Xena sat with her back firmly pressed against a low wall, a gaily striped canopy over her head which blocked the sun directly above them. All around her athletes sprawled, some with servants fanning them, others sucking down pitchers of cool water to fend off the heat.
It was smart, she recognized, to give everyone a break in the worst of the day’s sweltering. It was getting muggy again, and even Xena, who was more immune to the weather than most of the surrounding crowd, felt the heat sucking the energy out of her.
She leaned back against the stone surface, drawing a knee up and resting her forearm against it. There was a small, but distinct space around her, despite the intense crowding, and she was aware of being the subject of numerous furtive glances from the men and women nearby.
That wasn’t unusual. Xena reasoned. She was used to being stared at, and wondered about.
Her eyes flicked around quickly.
Out of the corner of her eye, she sensed a motion and she focused her peripheral vision on it, not moving her head. Across the pavilion, a tall man was coming in her direction. He was dressed in an athlete’s garb, and had a lithe, sinuous grace to his walk. As he came closer, Xena slowly turned her head and looked at him, taking in the hunter’s air and the sense of cold danger the man exuded.
He crossed the empty space around her and stopped with his boots just short of touching her leg. “You are the one they call Xena.” His voice held a hint of foreign shores.
Xena regarded him coolly, noting that the nearby conversation had ceased, and all eyes were on her strange visitor. “That’s right.”
“I would speak with you.”
Xena looked right, then left. “I don’t see anyone stopping you.” She answered. “Siddown.”
He let her wait for a moment, then in a single, graceful motion seated himself next to her, sitting cross-legged at her side and studying her intently. He was handsome, unbearded and with hair the color of Gabrielle’s that curled tightly against his well shaped head. His eyes were a dark gray, and held a wily intelligence that Xena readily recognized as a kindred to her own.
“My name is Denus.” He told her. “And I am going to kill you.”
If Denus expected this to shock Xena, he was sadly disappointed. The warrior grinned frankly back at him, her eyes twinkling with cold amusement. “Nice to finally meet someone in this place with guts and the sense to tell the truth.” She responded.
One of his fair eyebrows lifted a trifle. “I will kill you.” He repeated.
“You’ll give it a try.” Xena said.
“But you don’t think I will succeed?” Denus countered.
“I don’t kill easily.” The warrior told him. “Ares should have told you that.”
He didn’t answer that one, instead, he propped both elbows on his knees and steepled his fingers, peering past them at her face. “He has told me much of you.” Denus allowed. “Enough so that I have hopes that reason might win out between us, rather than bloodshed.”
Xena sensed a familiar presence approaching, at the fringes of her awareness. “That why you started out with the ‘I’ll kill you’ line?” She smirked a little.
Denus shrugged one shoulder deprecatingly. “It has a certain impact to it.” He stated. “Xena, I know not what your stake is in this contest, but let me tell you what mine is.” He gazed steadily at her. “I was born a Spartan.”
“I’ve fought against them. “ Xena replied quietly. “And for them.” That surprised him a little, she could see it in the slight widening of his eyes.
“I was captured before I became a man, and brought here to Athens as a slave.” He went on. “Four seasons ago, I was selected to be trained for the games, and become the champion of Athens.”
“Ironic.” Xena commented.
His lips tensed briefly. “I saw my chance, and I took it. I mastered all comers, and came to these games with my prize within reach.”
“A laurel wreath?” Xena asked, dryly.
“Freedom.” Denus replied, in a soft voice. “I want to go home.”
Xena felt the weight of that statement, understanding it far more deeply than he’d ever guessed. She was given breathing space to answer, however, when the soft scuff of boots against stone made them both look up.
Green eyes met Xena’s briefly, then moved to Denus with polite interest. Gabrielle was carrying a small basket, which she set down next to where Xena was sprawled, and joined them. “Hi.” She tucked her boots under her as she sat, and held a hand out to him. “I’m Gabrielle.”
Denus clasped her arm, and let it go. “Denus.” He replied courteously. “I am..”
“The champion of Athens, yes, I know.” The bard interrupted him. “And you’re here to try and convince Xena to get out of the Games and let you win.”
“Let me?” His ego stood up and snorted in indignation.
“Yeah.” Gabrielle maintained eye contact with him. “Because otherwise you wouldn’t be here.. you’d just wait for the competition if you were so sure of yourself.” She opened the basket and pulled out a piece of waybread, wrapped around a huge chunk of lamb. “Lunch.” She passed it to her partner, along with a softly gurgling wineskin.
“Thanks.” Xena accepted them, and gave Denus a reserved look. “You were telling me why you need to win this thing.” She took a bite of the lamb and chewed it. It was a little on the salty side, and stronger tasting than she liked it, but she’d had worse.
Denus turned his attention from Gabrielle and focused on her again. “They have promised me my freedom if I triumph here.. and free passage back to Sparta.” He said. “I must win.”
Xena sipped from the wineskin, pleasantly surprised at the rich, fruity taste. “That’s what Athens promised you.” She said, wiping her mouth. “What about Ares?”
He didn’t answer.
“He doesn’t care about your freedom.” The warrior leaned forward, locking eyes with him. “So what is it?”
“Nothing.” Denus said. “He has given me the knowledge I need to achieve my goals, and has asked for nothing in return.”
Gabrielle sighed, and shook her head. “How old are you?” She asked, in a kind voice.
“Twenty four summers.” Denus answered. “Why?”
“You’ve got a lot to learn, kid.” The bard told him. “Ares never does anything for free.”
Xena gave her twenty three season old partner a very droll look. “Her ancient Amazon majesty here is right. He’s gonna ask you to pay up sometime. You sure it’s worth it?”
Denus leaned forward, his face very serious. “My freedom is worth everything to me.” He said. “And I will win it… no matter what it takes.” His hand reached out, almost touching her. “You won’t stand in my way.. nothing will. Do you understand me? I care not about the tales or your claims – you will not defeat me.”
The warrior took another sip of wine, and studied him for a moment, idly entertaining the possibility that this young, very well conditioned fighter might, in fact, make good on his claims. After all, he was good, and determined. He was tough.
He had Ares as a mentor.
Her darker side grinned and licked its lips in anticipation.
“Denus.” Xena said. “A lot of people will die if you win. My friends.. people I care about will be put in danger, and I can’t let that happen.” She met his gaze with cold finality. ‘This is bigger than just you.”
“Ares was right.” Denus exhaled. “But I had to try.” His face hardened, and an icy cast slid down over his eyes. Without a further word, he stood and walked off, sliding gracefully through the crowd and disappearing from view.
“Well.” Gabrielle scooted back and leaned against the wall next to her partner. “That’s too bad.. he was sort of nice, in an arrogant, too tough for his sandals kind of way.” She put a hand on Xena’s nearby leg, squeezing the muscles under the skin lightly. “How’re you doing?”
Xena was sucking on her wineskin. “Not bad.” She remarked. “Where’s your lunch?”
“Right here.” Gabrielle had pulled out a sandwich, and it was lying on her thigh.
“You going to keep looking at it, or do something useful with it?” Xena teased her, nudging her with an elbow.
A sigh. “I’m not hungry.” The bard admitted. “It’s too hot…” She put a hand on her stomach. “I feel kinda queasy.”
Xena put the back of her hand against her partner’s cheek, frowning at the clamminess of her skin, and the paleness of her face. “When did you start feeling bad?” She asked, putting down the wineskin and paying full attention to the bard. Gabrielle’s breathing was little faster, and more labored than usual.
“Just a while ago.” Gabrielle gave in and closed her eyes, leaning her head back against the cool stone. “It’s just the weather, I think, Xe… overheated, maybe.”
The warrior picked up the waterskin lying nearby and uncapped it, then held it to Gabrielle’s lips. “Here.. drink.”
Gabrielle suckled obediently. “No fair. I’m supposed to be coddling you.”
“You can do that later.” Xena promised. “By the time I finish the wrestling bout tonight, you’ll probably have to haul my butt out of this place in a donkey cart.”
The bard rolled her head to one side and half opened her eyes. “You hurt yourself on that last throw. I felt it.”
Xena gazed at her, a touch puzzled. “Felt it?”
A nod. “Yeah.” Gabrielle’s face tensed. “Not like.. I mean, my leg didn’t hurt, but I.. “ She lifted a hand, it’s fingers shaping something indeterminate in the air. “I could just feel it – like a shock – like I got drenched in cold water or something.”
“Yeah?” Xena was curious. “That’s never happened before.”
“No.” The bard exhaled. “It was weird.”
“Hmph.” Xena’s brows contracted into a furrow.
“I think I felt it the first time, too, out on the road.” Gabrielle went on, thoughtfully. “But there was so much stuff going on, it didn’t really register.”
“Well, I haven’t had to worry about that for a while.” The bard said. “Maybe it’s just how that connection thing develops over time.. and we just didn’t know it.” She stroked the skin above Xena’s injured knee with careful finger. “And frankly, honey, I don’t want to get to know that bit any better, if you catch my drift.”
“Mm.” Xena worked a bit of her waybread off and offered it to the bard. “Chew.”
Gabrielle made a face.
“C’mon, if you don’t get something in you, it’ll just get worse.”
With a sigh, the bard complied, taking the bit from Xena’s fingers and eating it. It was small enough to pass into her grumbling stomach without too much trouble, and bland enough not to trigger a reaction. “I feel bad for that guy.”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle accepted another bit of bread. “I mean, he’s so focused on gaining his freedom. He didn’t even talk about what would happen to him if he lost.” She chewed in silence for a moment, as they both sat there, listening to the buzz of the crowd around them. A horsefly entered her vision, exploring the tip of her boot curiously. ‘Xena..”
“I’m thinking about it.” The warrior said.
“Good.” Gabrielle took a cautious sip of water to wash the bread down. “We’re all set then.”
Xena swallowed a mouthful of lamb. “I haven’t figured it out yet.”
“You will.” The bard replied. “You always do.”
Talk about living up to expectations. Xena mused to herself. She could already sense the unhappiness in the crowd, who had seen favorites bested in two contests already. Amphipolis was a relatively unknown, backwoods province to most of the watchers, though she suspected once her name, and Gabrielle’s became known the attitude would change a little.
Would winning really be the answer though? Xena considered that. It would piss off the city, piss off the gods, probably get her in legal trouble, be painful, potentially very difficult, and would endanger the slaves the Athenian council had conscripted in to compete for them. Not good.
On the other hand, it would save Amphipolis from both their taxes, and the military conscription, and screw up Athens plan to go to war, both financially and more importantly, by destroying the over the top morale defeating all comers would give them. The council was counting on that to give them the support from the citizens they’d need to prosecute a war. If the city lost, and the citizens got hit in the pocketbook for it…
Xena sighed, and swigged from her wineskin. Then a thought occurred to her. “Gabrielle, where did..”
“Outside, in the market. Why do you think it took me so long?” The bard answered. “I figure unless we’re in the common room, eating anything from official sources would be dangerous.” She unwrapped her own sandwich and started picking at it. “You were right about the bread. I feel better now.” Gabrielle glanced up when she didn’t get an answer, to find her soulmate gazing fondly at her. “What?”
Maybe their partnership was growing. Xena found that thought intriguing, and surprisingly to her, very appealing. Gabrielle’s personality had been developing over the past few years, her experiences bringing out different facets and moderating her youthful impulsiveness with a more mature self confidence.
She’d loved Gabrielle for a long time, but now, the warrior mused, she was coming to like her more and more each day. “Y’know what? We make a pretty damn good team.” Xena remarked casually. “I think I’ll keep you.”
Gabrielle stopped in mid chew, only her mist green eyes moving as her lashes blinked over them. After a somewhat startled moment, she swallowed. “Was… that in question?” She asked, hesitatingly.
Xena felt the pang, a faint echo of insecurity that had plagued her partner since their initial meeting, and which, though almost totally faded, still lurked there, deep down apparently. “No.” She regretted the words. “I just thought I’d say it. We seem to be finishing each other’s sentences lately.”
A certain unconscious tension relaxed in Gabrielle’s shoulders, and she shifted slightly, pressing a little closer to Xena. ‘Yeah, I noticed that.” She went back to eating her sandwich.
Xena studied her profile for a moment, then draped an arm over her shoulder, pulling her over and giving her a kiss on the top of her head along with the squeeze.
Gabrielle peeked up at her. “Showed, huh?”
“That little ‘gimme a hug’ look? Yeah.” Xena chuckled.
The bard wiggled her booted feet in contentment, and pulled the basket closer, tugging out a pair of apples and plunking one into Xena’s lap. They both leaned back in silence and watched the crowd around them, knowing themselves to be an island in a very unfriendly sea.
Eponin paused to wipe her brow, and regarded the slowly growing city walls they were approaching. “Damn.” She sighed. “Never thought I’d be glad to see this place.”
“Mm.” Cyrene agreed. “Doesn’t’ look as crowded as I expected.. at least the road’s pretty empty.” She glanced behind her, where the group of elders was resting. Despite all efforts, they’d been unable to convince them to stay behind, and after that morning’s funeral pyre for Josc, they’d started off at a very slow pace.
Perhaps it was for the best, the innkeeper signed inwardly. Leaving them all there, despite the Amazon guard, had been making her almost as uneasy as taking them on to Athens. At least if something happened now, she’d know about it.
Gods only knew what Xena would say, though.
They were traveling up on the embankment above the road, now, struggling through the brush and uneven ground rather than chance the mired mud of the road itself. Along the way, they’d seen things trapped in the brown muck that once could have been human or animal, and the stench from it was almost overwhelming.
But they were almost there. It was late afternoon, and the heat was beginning to dissipate. After a few more moments rest, they pushed on. “I just had a disgusting thought.” Ephiny spoke up, from her place on the other side of Cyrene.
“Don’t share.” Eponin begged. “Please?”
Cyrene gazed at them in weary amusement. “What’s that, Ephiny?”
“Place is going to be packed. What if we can’t find sleeping space?”
Eponin groaned. Cait and Paladia exchanged glances, but continued trudging along behind them.
But Cyrene didn’t flinch. “Ah. Well.” The innkeeper cleared her throat. “That, at least. I’ve got covered.” She said. “I have an old friend who keeps one of the best inns in Athens. We may end up in the back of the stable, but she’ll find us space.”
“A stable?” One of the elders protested.
“Xena and Gabrielle slept in the stable in Amphipolis for ever so long.” Cait interjected smoothly. “I’m sure it will be just super.”
“Won’t catch me sleeping in no stable.” Bran snorted, jerking away from Eponin’s hold on the rope that bound her hands.
“No, you’ll sleep in the lockhouse.” Pony told her. “With the rest of the scum.”
“Bastard.” Bran cursed, and struggled.
“Blind scum.” Pony amended. “Stop that, or I’ll knock your head off.”
Cait whipped out a chobo and whacked Bran on the back of the leg, causing their captive to yelp. “Stop it, at once.”
“Bck.” Dori, strapped to Cait’s back, watched with interest. She was sucking her thumb, apparently oblivious to the heat and the stress of the journey. “Cat make bad go ow.” She stated approvingly. “Bad. Cow!” She pointed at Bran.
“Aw, hush ya little.. Yow!!”
Cait drew back her hand again. “Once more, and I’ll go a bit higher next time.” She warned.
Bran snorted. “Need a ladder to reach me head.. YOW!”
“Do not.” Cait settled back to the ground with a satisfied grunt, and a giggle from Dori. “Did you like that, Dori?”
“Go fly!” Dori squealed.
Cait glanced over her shoulder. “Sorry.” She apologized to the toddler. “I can only just manage a hop. You’ll have to wait till we get to the city, where Xena is for that.”
“Boo!” Dori started bouncing up and down. “Go Booboboboboboboboboboboboooooo.”
“Ow.. Dori, please.” Cait covered her ear. “I’m sure we’ll all be ever so glad to see Xena.”
Ephiny rubbed the back of her sunburned neck, and privately admitted the utter truth of that. For one thing, she held the belief that only Xena and Gabrielle could really keep control over Dori. The rest of them had to be on their toes and very alert every moment, lest the child get into something dangerous, because Dori simply refused to listen to anyone else, save perhaps occasionally Cyrene.
Headstrong didn’t even come close to describing the toddler. Dori was more like a tiny tornado, touching down and carving her own path across the landscape without regard to the life and limb of anyone else around her. She’d gotten loose last night, and after two candlemarks of frantic searching, they’d finally found her playing contentedly inside a half collapsed stone storage bin in the back of the abandoned temple.
Ephiny knew she must have heard them calling her. There was nothing wrong with Dori’s hearing. The child had just decided she was going to do what she wanted, and that was all there was to that.
So she would be glad to turn Dori back over to her mothers, who had a mutual adoration society going on with the kid and maybe then they could all get some sleep.
Who would have guessed? Ephiny spared a smile, and moment of memory for the first time she’d seen her friend’s little heir, only days after her birth.
It had been a cool morning in spring, when she’d started up the long, sloping road from the river up to the gates of Amphipolis. She’d been traveling for days, and she’d been very glad to see the familiar lines of the village rising up on the horizon, looking forward to the welcome of her friends and the Amazon sisters who lived there.
She’d woken before dawn, and she’d been looking forward to a seat at Cyrene’s table, among other things when she’d cleared the gates of the village and stopped to decide on which direction to go first. Early though it was, there was already activity going on near the inn, and she decided to take a detour down the left hand path towards a small cabin behind it.
She’d been glad she had, when she’d past the first set of trees and spotted a familiar, fair haired figure already seated on the porch enjoying the morning sun. “Gabrielle!’
The bard had looked up, and a big grin had crossed her face. Even from where Ephiny was, she could see the intense sparkle of Gabrielle’s green eyes and the pride on her face as she glanced down at the small bundle cradled in her arms.
Ephiny had been shocked. Gabrielle hadn’t been due for another month, and she’d figured on arriving in time for the birth of Granella’s twins, then being there for her friend for the last, hardest fortnights of her confinement.
Not that Gabrielle had suffered a difficult pregnancy, or that Ephiny didn’t think she’d be well cared for here, in her chosen home. But there were things in her friend’s recent past that the Amazon regent had found herself unable to forget.
And as their eyes had met, she’d felt the weight of their shared history, and the knowledge of just how much a child, this child, meant to her young friend. “Well well.” She’d mounted the stairs and walked over. “What do we have here? Couldn’t wait, huh?”
“Nope.” Gabrielle had proudly straightened the soft covering. “C’mere and meet Doriana.”
Ephiny had, sitting down in the chair next to the bard. “A little girl.. a new little Amazon princess, I’m thinking.” She’d held her arms out. “Can I?”
“Sure.” Gabrielle had handed the child over, watching her as she cradled the baby. “She’s cute, huh?”
Ephiny had examine the newborn, finding a well grown baby with a cap of silky, dark hair and sturdy arms and legs in her clutches. “She’s beautiful, Gabrielle.” She’d said, delighted with the baby’s obvious health. “What a handful! You’d never guess she’s early.”
The moment of silence had made her look up, to find Gabrielle gazing back at her, with the most unfathomable expression on her face.
She hadn’t understood it at the time. “No offense meant.” She’d laughed, thinking she’d insulted her friend. “And how are you feeling?”
“Wonderful.” Gabrielle had replied. “It was all over so fast… Xena made sure everything went perfectly.”
Another shadow of the past was reflected clearly, silently between them. Ephiny had smiled in understanding, and then looked down as the baby gurgled.
Seeing bluish eyes gazing up at her in wonder, and a small hand reaching for her boar’s tooth necklace in infant curiosity. “Absolutely gorgeous.. what a head of hair on her already… and look at those fingers.” She’d watched as the child clutched on the smooth surface. “She’s going to be a strong one.” Ephiny had looked up at Gabrielle, “Like her mom.”
A smile had appeared on the bard’s face, crinkling her nose and sparking a sudden, brilliant warmth in her eyes. “Sure looks like it.” She’d agreed, leaning on the arm of her chair. “It’s hard to believe.. I keep looking at her, and just… It’s like a birthday present every minute.”
Ephiny had carefully handed the baby back to her mother, and enjoyed the sight of Gabrielle cuddling her, basking in a glow of new motherhood that had fairly made her heart ache. Her happiness had been so evident, and so deserved. “How’d Xena react?”
And Gabrielle had laughed, her voice lifting out across the cool morning.
Now, of course, Ephiny understood that laugh, though she really didn’t understand the how, and the why of Dori’s birth. She just knew that Gabrielle was happy, and that really was what mattered, in the long run. Though her first sight of Xena cradling Dori in her arms had been, in all truth, bittersweet, she’d had no doubt whatsoever of the warrior’s love for the child. Xena had fairly glowed with it.
“BooBoboboboboboboboo!!!” Dori squealed.
And boy, that kid loved Xena. Ephiny rubbed her ear. “Yeah, we’re going, Dori. Trust me.” She told the child. “Gonna go find your mama, and your Boo.”
“Mama.” Dori grinned happily. “Get mama, go get fishies, Boo go fly.”
“Well then. She’s got her day planned.” Ephiny had to laugh, along with the rest of them. They were now within easy sight of the city walls, and could see the intercuts made in the embankments to allow travelers to descend down to the city gates.
They made their way carefully down and approached the guards, who barely gave them a second glance after having seen so many travelers in the same condition for so many days. One of the younger guards came over, picking carefully around the planks that had been set on the mud. “Halt.” He sighed.
Ephiny held a hand up, and everyone did, the elders patently glad to as they leaned on one another. “Greetings.” She spoke to the guard politely, as Johan came up to join her.
“Purpose?” The man barely looked at her.
“Just visiting?” The Amazon regent hazarded.
An older guard, with rank marks on his surcoat came over, studying them curiously. “Amazons?” He inquired.
Gee. What clued you? Ephiny folded her arms over her chest. “That’s right. My name is Ephiny.. I’m the regent of the west mountain Amazon tribe.” She said. “These are my sisters… we are escorting these people, who have come from Amphipolis.”
The captain stiffened. “Amphipolis?” He asked, loudly. The rest of the guards quickly gathered around them, muttering. “The Hades you say!”
“Uh oh.” Eponin sighed. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” She glanced around them nervously, seeing a limited number of escape options. Her hand closed over the hilt of her sword, though, and she watched Cait and Paladia shift and edge out, sensing danger.
“That’s right.” Cyrene stepped forward. “I’m the innkeeper there. What’s this all about?”
“That name’s not very welcome here at the moment.” The captain told her, tersely. “But I’ve not been given instructions to bar you… though I’d watch my back very closely were I you if you pass these gates.”
“Oh. Great.” Pony sighed. “Can’t we EVER go someplace and NOT be in trouble?”
“With your face? I’d think not.” Bran taunted her.
Pony glared at her, then turned to the guards. “Hey… you guys are the law, right?”
Distracted, the captain eyed her. “Of course.”
“Good.” Eponin handed him the rope, much to Bran’s horror. “Found this vagabond robbing citizens on the road… can you lock it up?”
“Hey!” Bran jerked the rope back, and started running, only to get trapped in the mud as she went off the planking. “Sonofa… “
“Get her.” The captain ordered. “I think… bloody great shield of Zeus, it is.. it’s that damned escaped slave!” He yelled. “Take her!” He turned to the group. “Move along… we’ll take care of this… and I thank you for bringing her in.” A pause. “Even if you are from Amphipolis.”
“Hey! Hey! You can’t leave me with these guys! Hey!” Bran yelled frantically, as the guards descended on her. “Hey!”
Ephiny watched them for a moment, then nodded towards the gates. “Let’s go.” She put her hand on Cyrene’s back. “Let’s go see if we can figure out what’s going on.”
They all shuffled past the gates, and into the city of Athens, pausing in silence at the grand vista that spread before them. A broad boulevard climbed steadily uphill, flanked with buildings and full of color, sound, and smell. Far off, they heard the strident roar of what sounded like a mob.
“Are we quite sure we WANT to know what’s going on?” Cait’s voice piped up.
“Bck.” Dori added, peering over Cait’s shoulder.
They all knew who she was now. Gabrielle walked quietly to her assigned spot, very aware of the palpable hostility directed towards her both from her fellow competitors and the crowd. Her throat felt suddenly dry, and she wished she had some water, as the officials readied themselves and the other runners got into place.
“Don’t think you’ll get lucky again.” The tall, red haired winner of the second race told her. “This is my day, not yours.” She took a spot right next to Gabrielle and stood easily, shaking her hands and flexing them.
“All right.” Gabrielle exhaled, glancing to the other side of her and seeing a pair of dark eyes, in a dark skinned face glaring back at her.
“Don’t even think about any tricks.” The dark skinned woman said. “You try anything with me, and I’ll make sure you wipe your face on that stone track.”
Gabrielle blinked at her. “Tricks? What kind of tricks could there be in a simple footrace?”
“Don’t act so innocent.” Red Hair snapped from the other side. “Just a coincidence the two best runners in the first race get tripped.. right near you.”
“What are you saying?” The bard asked. “I didn’t have..”
“Liar.” Dark skin hissed. “But you’ll get what’s coming to you in this race. There won’t be any laurel leaves for you.”
Gabrielle felt sick. She tried to do what Xena did, and simply let the words slide off her, but her nature was essentially different from her soulmate’s, and the hostility pressed down on her, making her stomach twist.
“Loser.” Red hair snorted. “Go back to the sticks where you belong.”
At that moment, Gabrielle acknowledged sadly, she’d have given about anything to have done just that. She closed her eyes briefly in an attempt to concentrate, then opened them and stared forward.
Ahead of her, the track stretched, and as she looked down it – seemed to narrow almost oppressively. The crowd’s roar got louder, and the strident tone started to get on her nerves as she wished silently that it was just all over with.
To her right, the official lifted his hand, and she leaned forward, feeling sadly unsure, and inadequate, and suddenly quite, quite certain that she was about to make a fool of herself in losing.
She started to shake, and felt a sense of panic rise, and desperately she searched inside herself for the balance that was deftly eluding her.
Then her darting eyes found, at last, a focus point as she saw Xena step out from the crowd and stand firmly at the end of the track. Never had the warrior’s tall, sturdy form seem a more welcome sight.
In that moment, all Gabrielle wanted, she decided, was to be at the end of that track, in the arms of the person who meant more than life did to her.
To Hades with the race. Let them win, let them have their nasty laurel leaves, and their stinking attitudes.
She had Xena.
The official’s arm swept down, and she just took off and ran. She didn’t look right or left, or care in the slightest what position she was in. She was aware, in a far off sort of way, of her heart pounding in her chest, and a loud noise around her, but seconds later her objective was obtained and she was hurling herself at full speed right into Xena’s waiting arms.
She heard the air come out of her soulmate’s lungs with a grunt, as they both hit the low wall behind the track, then she just hung on the tall body as her own tried to sort itself out. “S…sorry.. “
“Easy, champ.” Xena murmured, rubbing the bard’s back gently, aware of the direly fast heartbeat racing against her fingertips. “Take it easy, okay?”
“How bad’d I do?” Gabrielle gasped, blinking sweat out of her eyes. “I tried… I didn’t.. gods, Xena they were being so..” She sucked in a ragged breath. “Just too much.. try to make it up, Xe.. I.. was I last?”
“No, you won, sweetheart.” Xena told her quietly. “Fair and square. You came out first and never looked back, and they never had a chance.”
Gabrielle simply stood there, in stunned silence for a moment, as her breathing steadied. I won? She turned her head and looked around in bewilderment, seeing the other runners gathering around. The dark skinned favorite was leaned over, her hands on her knees, her whole body shaking with heaving breaths. Red Hair was sitting on the ground, a ball of frustration. The others were staring at her. At them, with resentful respect.
Very confused, the bard tipped her chin up and found Xena looking back at her with a quiet, proud smile. “How?” She whispered. “I didn’t think I…”
“I know.” Xena agreed, smoothing her sweat dampened hair back. “But I did.”
Gabrielle leaned her head against the warrior’s shoulder, taking a steadying breath before she straightened up and turned to face the crowd. With Xena’s stalwart presence behind her, she suddenly felt twice her height and found it easy, now to meet the eyes of her erstwhile competitors.
I know. But I did. Gabrielle’s mind replayed the words over, and over, and over again. It felt so incredible to hear that, and she savored it, wrapping it around her soul like the softest lamb’s wool. She felt her face creasing into a smile, and all the dour looks in the world couldn’t even make a dent in that as the officials walked towards her.
“A good race, citizen.” The older of the two greeted her politely. “You have a fine pace on you.”
“Thanks.” Gabrielle replied quietly, as they tacked a full sprig of laurel on her, a half circle of leaves tied with a bit of golden thread. “I guess I just had the right motivation.” She said. “And someone who believed in me more than I did myself.”
The official didn’t understand. He merely gave her a nod, and walked on to the second and third place runners, the two women who had been harassing Gabrielle at the start of the race. One of the other runners, a young woman about Gabrielle’s height and general build approached her, and the bard steeled herself for more of the same treatment.
Then she felt Xena drape her arms casually over her shoulders, and felt the pressure of the warrior’s cheek against the side of her head, and figured if the woman was that stupid, bring her on. The thought made her chuckle inwardly though, at herself. Gabrielle, bard of Potadeia, with her living cloak of intimidation, huh? She put her hands on her hips and waited, meeting the woman’s gaze with a proud one of her own.
“Congratulations.” The woman held a hand out.
Gabrielle exchanged clasps with her. “Thanks.”
“I like your training aid.” The woman pointed at Xena. “Know where I could get one like that?”
Oh. Well, that was better. Gabrielle grinned at her frankly. “There is only one like this.” She told her. “Sorry.”
The woman shook her head, then laughed and moved on. Gabrielle released a breath and turned around. “Where to next?” She asked. “Wrestling pit?”
A wince. “I saw those guys practicing yesterday, Xena.”
“Tough?” The warrior asked, as they started walking.
“Ah. Great.” Xena made a face. “Well, I don’t think my leg’s up to any extended contests.. better make it fast then.”
“You could hold a rose between your teeth.. that might help.”
“Not if I get a thorn up my nose.”
“Hm… how about a gardenia then?”
“Nah. I’ll just think of something worse.”
“Than smelly, grunting guys? Like what?”
Long pause. “Ew.”
“Cyrene, you don’t know what you’re asking for.” The elderly innkeeper sighed, wiping her hands on her apron. “Do you know what’s going on here?”
“What, the games?” Cyrene waved a hand. “We heard, sure. C’mon, Sala, there has to be some space. You’re far enough from the city center.”
“That’s not the problem.” Her friend told her, lowering her voice. “It’s where you’re from.”
“Me?” Cyrene snorted. “Since when is Amphipolis the left front yard of Hades?”
“You haven’t heard?” Sala covered her eyes. “Great Hera, Cyrene, where have you been? The entire city’s afire with it! They’re saying Amphipolis has sent here to Athens to conquer it!”
Cyrene clapped a hand over her mouth to stifle a laugh. “My town?” She gasped. “Oh, c’mon, now, Sala. We haven’t sent anyone here late… well, just my daughter and her partner but..”
“Your daughter.” Sala repeated, leaning closer. “Xena.”
“Who has already won a laurel, and the other one with her a second, and is well on her way to upsetting the entire Games?” Sala said. “That daughter?”
It rocked Cyrene, and she took a step back, trying to absorb the news. “Hold up.” She murmured. “Xena and Gabrielle entered the games? Why?”
Sala shrugged. “Didn’t they come for that?”
“No.. they came to talk about our taxes.”
The Athenian innkeeper put her hands on her hips and shook her head. “By the gods, Cyrene. You must be joking.. the whole city is up in arms!”
“I don’t understand.” Cyrene replied, with a sigh. “But Xena’s got a mind of her own.. we’d better find her and figure out what’s going on.” She glanced at her old friend. “I’m sorry, Sala.. if I’d know what my child was up to, I would never have come here. I mean no harm to your inn.”
The older innkeeper’s expression softened. “You never did have ken over that girl, Cyrene, and we both know it.” Sela said. “I have space, and you’re welcome here, you and your neighbors.” She put an arm around Cyrene’s shoulders and walked with her into the outer room. “Who knows? Maybe the notoriety will bring me in some night business.”
“We’re not looking to be part of the entertainment.” Cyrene released a breath. “It’s been a tough trip. We lost a life in that flood.”
Sela grimaced. “We heard it was bad.” She said. “By the way, who were the half naked savages with you?”
“Amazons.” Cyrene murmured. “They’re not savages.”
“Amazons?” Her old friend snorted. “How did you get mixed up with the likes of THEM?”
“Long story.” A sigh. “Very long story.”
Ephiny sat on the edge of the low, but acceptable pallet, and rested her chin in her hands. “Boy.” She groaned wearily. “Feels good to sit down on something dry.”
“Too right.” Cait was across the room, on one of the second set of pallets. They’d been allocated three rooms, each with between four and six pallets, and though the surroundings were plain, they were clean and blessedly free of bugs, rain, and cranky elders.
Ephiny felt bad about thinking that, but she’d been about on her last nerve when they’d gotten to the city and to be here, alone with her Amazons was a profound relief.
Well, almost alone. “What’s the matter, Dori?” Ephiny watched the toddler, who was seated on the rush covered floor at Cait’s feet, clutching one of her favorite toys. The stuffed dragon was much the worse for wear, but Dori hugged it to her like it was a precious artifact.
“No go, bad.” Dori looked unhappy, putting one hand up to cover her ear. “Ow.”
“Huh?” Eponin sat up on her elbows. “What’s that all about?”
“I think it’s too noisy.” Cait explained. “She’s got quite sensitive hearing.”
“Gee.” Pony laid back down. “Wonder where she got THAT from.”
Ephiny sighed. “Well, we should go find our little friend’s parents, and see if we can arrange a reunion. Would you like that, Dori? Want to go find your mama, and Xena?”
Dori’s eyes opened wide. “Mama?” She looked around quickly, then back at Ephiny in evident disappointment. “Boo?”
The Amazon regent heaved herself to her feet and walked over. “C’mon, kiddo. I can’t take that sad face anymore. Let’s go find your family.” She scooped the toddler up. “Boof… you’re getting big, or I’m getting old, Dori.”
“Oh no.” Ephiny settled her in the crook of an arm. “Not this featherhead, kiddo.” She glanced at Pony, who had gotten up to join her. “I wonder what it would be like growing up with Xena as your personal play toy?”
Pony shrugged. “Ask Gabrielle.”
“Tch.” The regent poked her with an elbow. “I seriously doubt she gives Gab piggy back rides or plays hide and… “ Ephiny’s voice trailed off as their eyes met, then startlingly, the blond Amazon blushed. Pony snickered. “Okay, let’s go.” Ephiny grabbed her partner by a set of feathers and started off, pulling the still chuckling weapons master with her.
“I say, Ephiny…” Cait spoke up.
“No, you two stay here.” Ephiny told her. “Keep an eye on things, all right? We don’t want any trouble.”
Cait watched the door close and sighed, as she settled back onto the pallet. “Rats.”
“Yes!” Paladia was flat on her back and she pumped a fist in the air. “Lucked out!”
“We did not.” Cait protested. “I wanted to go see what’s happening too!”
“Nu uh.” Her friend wagged a finger in the air. “You wanted to go find Xena.” Paladia teased her. “I figured you to start yelling ‘bobobobobobbbbooboboo’ right along with the pipsqueak.”
“Pally, stop that at once, or I will have to thump you.” Cait warned. “And besides, I would never call Xena that.” She added. “You better not either.”
Paladia wriggled into a more comfortable position. “No sweat.” She closed her eyes.
“Well, come on, let’s go.” Cait grabbed a convenient part of Paladia’s anatomy and moved towards the door, pulling her friend with her.
“Heyehehehey!” Paladia protested, holding onto the pallet to prevent being pulled of it. “No way! Hey! They said to stay here!”
Cait put her hands on her hips. “And since when do you ever listen to what they say?” She asked. “Get up at once, Pally, or I shall truly be upset with you.”
“Why?” Paladia moaned. “Can’t we just do what they tell us to do, just this once? Huh?” After a moment of silence, she looked up, to find Cait gazing thoughtfully back at her. “Well?”
Cait’s eyes dropped, and she walked quietly back over and sat down, resting her elbows on her knees. “All right.”
Paladia’s eyebrows met above her eyes as she frowned, confused by her friend’s unexpected reaction. Curious, she levered herself up and swung her feet off her pallet, sitting up just across from Cait. “Hey.”
“Are you sick or something?” The big Amazon asked. “You’ve been acting really weird, even for you.”
“No.” Cait replied firmly. “There is nothing wrong with me.”
“Yeah, well I don’t think..”
“Pally, shut up.”
Xena held her breath and bore down, using every ounce of her weight to pin her opponent to the ground.
“You stinking, piece of dung bitch!”
The warrior got her leg behind the man’s calf and twisted, nearly removing his joint from it’s socket. With a low growl, she tensed her muscles, feeling the strain across her back as she fought to bend the man’s body into submission.
“Augguh!” The man finally coughed, as one last violent struggle failed to move his persistent and deadly powerful opponent. “I submit!”
The official slapped the nearby post with a bamboo stick, making a loud crack that could be heard about the jeering crowd. “Hold!”
Xena released him and rolled well clear, forcing herself to her feet and straightening to her full height. It had been three very tough matches, and this one was the worst. The man she’d bested topped her by a full head, and outweighed her by half, and it had seemed to Xena like she was wrestling her mother’s prize bull back home in Amphipolis.
Except the bull smelled better.
Being surrounded by hatred didn’t help either. Xena drew in a breath and felt her instincts react as a hand lifted to deflect a throw bit of garbage that narrowly missed her head. She batted it away and watched it in disgust as it landed near her beaten foe, who was just now struggling to his feet.
They were in a pit formed by four solid walls, which surrounded the wrestling circle. Entrance was gained by a sloping ramp through a gate, and she was stuck here until they opened the gate. Above her, she could sense Gabrielle’s presence, almost feeling the mixture of pride and anger the bard must be experiencing at the sight of the rowdy crowd.
She, on the other hand, was just disgusted, and even the knowledge that she’d won the lists didn’t make it any easier to bear. As she watched, her opponent looked her way, then spat on the ground and made a rude gesture.
Xena wondered if it was worth the energy expenditure to remove his ability to use that appendage for the next, say, six moons.
Another piece of garbage winged her way, and she merely moved aside to let it pass, cocking her head as she was sure she heard Gabrielle’s teeth grinding together.
After a few moments conference, the wrestling judge reluctantly approached her, holding the laurel bunch in his hand. Instead of pinning it, he just handed it to her, then turned and walked off, leaving her there to the crowd’s displeasure.
The garbage came faster. Xena realized they had no intention of opening the gates.
She turned in a slow circle, planning her exit. The wall was high, but she knew she could reach it with an effort, but she wondered if she was going to have to fight her way through the crowd once she topped the wall.
A disturbance caught her eye, and she turned to see Gabrielle fight her way to the top of the wall, leaning a hand on it and extending her other one towards her. The bard looked….
Adorably furious. Her green eyes were spitting sparks, and if Xena looked closely, she could almost see the steam rising from her beloved soulmate’s ears. “Xena!” The bard yelled. “C’mon!”
Well, it was as good a spot as any. With a disgusted look of her own at the judges, who were studiously ignoring her on the other side of the pit, she started towards the wall, readying her body for the leap, and whatever came after it.
Halfway into the crouch that would send her springing upward, a sound rang out that stopped her in mid motion, though, as a familiar squeal cut through the jeers and yelling of the crowd.
Xena hopped like a bunny rabbit, then whirled, her eyes searching the wall rapidly. It only took a moment, before she spotted the commotion in the crowd, and the sight of Ephiny’s distinctive form shoving her way through the unruly mob. She started moving towards the spot, ignoring the now veritable hailstorm of debris that was hitting her, her attention focused on a bit of wall right in front of Ephiny where…
“Son of a bacchae!” Xena bolted forward as a small form topped the wall, spotted her, then flung itself into space as fearlessly…
As fearlessly as she would have, damn it. “Dori!” She leaped the last bodylength and grabbed the falling toddler out of mid air, swinging her around and landing them both with a distinct thump.
“Boo!!!!” Dori squealed in utter joy, scrambling around in her arms and flinging her small arms around the warrior’s sweaty neck. “Bobobobobobobboboobooo!!!!!”
Xena covered the toddler’s body with both arms, and pressed her back flat against the wall, her eyes flicking around the pit, searching out dangerous missiles. “Hey, Dori.. glad to see ya.” She murmured to her daughter, as she suddenly spotted a very dangerous missile vault over the wall and land sprawling in the dust. “Look. There’s mama.”
She heard a sword clear it’s scabbard over her head and looked up to see Ephiny and Eponin braced above her, Amazon feathers abristle as they cleared the part of the wall over her head.
“Throw that, and I’ll cut your damn hand off!” Eponin bellowed. “You Athenian piece of centaur dung!”
Xena felt a pair of warm arms circle her, as Gabrielle arrived, greeting her daughter with a hug and a kiss. “I think the cavalry just came up over the hill, honey.” The bard gasped. “Son of a.. I was going to start hurting those people.”
“Mama… go fishie!” Dori burbled, giving her mother a sloppy kiss on the cheek. “Go good now. Love you.” She returned her attention to the taller woman holding her. “Love Boo. Want Boo now.”
Despite everything, it brought a smile to Xena’s face, and she blocked the still screaming crowd out of her mind as she looked down at Dori. “Yeah? Who told you to come flying off that wall, huh? You could have gotten a real owie, shortie.”
Dori grinned at her, wrinkling up her snub little nose. “Fun.”
Yeah, fun. Xena looked up at the judge, and pinned him with the most severe look she could dredge up. “Either you open that gate, or I’m going to pull your arm off and use it as a key. Got me, buddy?” She rasped.
He was staring at her with the weirdest look on his face. “Open.” He turned and rapped on the gate, standing back as it creaked into life. “Clear the arena!” He ordered sternly, pointing to the guards. “This event is over!”
Xena looked up. “Thanks.” She spared a wry smile for their friends.
Ephiny leaned over the wall towards her. “Xena, I love you, but do me a favor, okay?”
“Sure.” The warrior chuckled a little. “What is it?”
“Let me get drunk before you tell me what’s going on.”
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances, as Dori started untying Xena’s chest covering. “Might make more sense then.” The bard murmured.
It might at that. Xena exhaled wearily.
It just might.
Ephiny slouched in one of the chairs, propping one booted foot up across her knee as she watched the twilight slowly creep across the floor. Pony sat next to her, listening as Gabrielle related everything they’d found out.
As promised, they each had nice, big mugs of cool ale, and the bard took her own cup as she sat down across from them. Xena was scrubbing the sweat off in the nearby bathtub, and Dori was ‘helping’ her much larger parent wash. A smile crossed Gabrielle’s face as she heard both Xena’s low laugh, and the baby’s delighted burbling amidst the splashing. It vanished, however, as she faced her two friends.
“So, that’s the story.” Gabrielle exhaled tiredly, the long day’s efforts coming home to her with a vengeance. “Now, you want to tell me what you guys are doing here?”
Ephiny took a long sip of ale, giving her a moment to collect her thoughts and decide how to proceed. “Well...” She paused as Xena stepped past her, a light linen shift covering her body and a very happy, albeit damp toddler cradled in her arms. “What happened?” She asked, distracted by the warrior’s significant limp.
Xena seated herself on the low padded couch next to Gabrielle and exhaled, as Dori crawled off her lap and made a beeline for her mother. “Had an accident on the road in here.” She admitted. “Tried to help some damn carter out and got kicked in the knee for my efforts.” The warrior regarded her injured leg, which was noticibly swollen, critically. “Not making it any easier, let me tell you.”
“Ouch.” Eponin winced in sympathy.
Xena merely shrugged.
Interesting segue. Ephiny leaned forward and rested her elbows on her knees. “It was a dangerous road.” She murmured. “We hit some very bad flooding.”
“All the more reason for never leaving Amphipolis.” Xena stated. “What did they hope to achieve? I’m gonna assume you just went along for the ride.”
The regent inclined her head in agreement. “Pretty much. I got to town two days after they started out.. so I just followed.” She glanced at Pony. “As to why… I’d better leave that to Cyrene to explain. I’m not sure I understand it myself.”
“What was Josc thinking?” Gabrielle shook her head. “I know he’s got a thing for being in control but…”
Ephiny exchanged a glance with her partner and chewed the inside of her lip.
“What happened?” Xena asked quietly, watching their faces.
It was easiest just to use the plain truth, Ephiny had long ago decided. “Our wagon got washed away in the flood. We lost just about all our supplies and provisions, but everyone got through it all right except for Joscyln.” She paused, not looking at Gabrielle’s suddenly comprehending face. “He died in the water. We gave him a pyre yesterday morning.”
Gabrielle was stunned. It wasn’t what she expected to hear, though having lived the life she had, death wasn’t the shock to her that it might have been to someone else. “Gods, I’m sorry to hear that.” She whispered, her arms tightening around Dori’s active form instinctively.
“Damn.” Xena exhaled.
‘Yeah.” Eponin fiddled with her cup. “We all felt bad – I mean…” She hesitated awkwardly.
“Must have been a tough trip for all of you.” Gabrielle spoke up quietly. “I know the elders aren’t easy to deal with in the best of times.” She seemed deep in thought. “Josc and I didn’t see eye to eye a lot of times.. but I liked him.”
Everyone remained silent.
“I’ll never forget the day we were joined… at home.” Gabrielle went on. “And how he accepted Xena.”
“Mm.” The warrior nodded pensively. “He was a good man.” She added, seeming at a loss for further words.
Finally, Gabrielle let out a breath, and shook her head. “Why?” She asked, gazing at the two Amazons seated across from her. “I don’t understand, Eph. Why risk this? A trip at this time of year, as old as they all were.. and then…” She smoothed Dori’s hair, as the baby looked up curiously at her. “Why? It could have been any of them.. or mom, or..” Her eyes fell on her child.
“Dunno.” Pony spoke up, seeing Ephiny unsure of what to say. “Near as I could figure, they just wanted to go to the big city, and be known.” She said. “Don’t think they didn’t think you guys could handle it, but..”
“Yeah.” Ephiny nodded. “I think they wanted to do it themselves.”
Xena could feel the upset clearly in her partner, and she slid an arm around her, rubbing her thumb lightly against the tense muscles she could feel just under Gabrielle’s skin. “That doesn’t explain my mother.”
“Well.” Ephiny gave Xena a wry look. “She is *your* mother.”
Even Gabrielle smiled, just a little, at that.
“I think she felt responsible for those guys.” Pony added. “She kinda took charge.. came into the inn and said they were going, didn’t give us a chance to have much say about it.” The weapons master considered. “Didn’t ask us to go, matter of fact.”
“I’m very glad you did.” Gabrielle finally spoke up. “Thank you, Pony.”
Eponin blinked, but looked pleased at the words. “I’m bucking for Elysia.” She commented unexpectedly. “Figured a trip like this protecting your heir might about do it.” She tried not to look at Ephiny, who had covered her face hastily with one hand.
“Bck.” Dori was curled up on her mother’s lap, peacefully sucking her thumb. “Poopoo good.”
Gabrielle had to smile at that, too. “Were you a good girl for Auntie Poopoo, Dori?” She asked her child, who giggled in response. “Ah. I see. No, huh?” She hugged the child to her, and rested her chin on Dori’s head. “Thanks for keeping her safe.” The bard’s lips twitched a little. “I know it wasn’t easy.”
Both Amazons produced tiny grins. “Listen.” Ephiny studied the two of them. “We’d better get back, find out what’s going on with the rest of the bunch. We’re staying over at a friend of your mother’s place – want to come down and join us for dinner?”
Gabrielle cocked her head. “Mikah didn’t find you then, I guess.” She murmured. “Must have been busy at the gate.”
“Mm.” Xena frowned.
“Mikah?” Pony asked, curiously.
Gabrielle cleared her throat. “Someone who’s..um.. working with us.” She said. “We asked him to watch out for you guys.. he’s probably still up there.” Her eyes went to Xena’s face. “Tell you what.. why don’t we meet up with you guys in the morning. Give everyone a chance to relax over there before we figure out what to do next.”
Ephiny nodded. “Okay.” She eyed Dori. “You sure *you* are going to get a chance to relax? You guys must be exhausted.”
“Sure.” Gabrielle gave her daughter a hug. “We’ll be fine.” She said. “Go on, go get some rest.”
The two Amazons got up and drained their cups, then left, closing the door softly behind them.
There was quiet in the room for several heartbeats, as the sounds of the city filtered into the window along with a gust of evening air. Finally Gabrielle let out a soft groan, and slumped back, closing her eyes in utter defeat. “Oh, good gods, Xena. What the Hades did we get ourselves into?”
Xena didn’t answer for a minute. She reached out and played with Dori’s fingers, watching the toddler grasp her hand. “Shame what happened to Josc.” She murmured. “I wish they’d stayed home.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle agreed. “I’m glad we made up before I left. We didn’t agree on a lot, but I know he meant to do what was right for the town.”
“You realize this means you’re acting reeve, don’t you?”
The bard exhaled wearily. “Yeah.” She admitted. “One more mantle I never wanted. I’d give you a thousand dinars right now if I could just go back to being an itinerant traveling bard, Xena.” She turned her head and regarded her partner. “Those people today… I was so mad at them. I wanted my staff, Xena. I wanted to just start…” Gabrielle rubbed her face with one hand. “I don’t know if I can handle this. I definitely don’t know how I can get up on a stage tomorrow and face those little b..”
Xena pulled both the bard and her daughter over and wrapped her arms around them. “Don’t think about it right now.” She advised her partner. ‘Thanks for getting rid of them, by the way.”
Gabrielle felt her thoughts change direction as if by magic, and she focused her attention on Xena. “Your leg must be killing you.”
Just a brief nod in answer.
“I figured, when you actually had to limp in front of Pony.” Gabrielle said. “I brought back enough stuff when I went out during lunch for us to have a decent dinner here.” She interlaced her fingers with Xena’s. “Here I am bitching about having to go tell stories when you were the one out there getting pelted by garbage.. sorry, Xe.”
“S’allright.” Xena watched Dori mouth the crystal around Gabrielle’s neck, a favorite non snack of hers. “Hey, shortie. You glad to see us?”
Dori gazed up at her, then dropped the crystal and reached for Xena’s face, clutching the edge of her chin with her small fingers. “Go bad.” She scolded her beloved playmate. “No fun.”
“Ah ah.. don’t you yell at your Boo.” Gabrielle told her daughter. “She’s had a very tough day. Be nice.” She tilted her own head back and gently kissed her soulmate on the lips. “Thanks for being there for me today.” Easing out of Xena’s embrace, she got to her feet and handed Dori to her. “Dori, give Boo a hug while I go get us some goodies.”
Her daughter’s eyes lit up. “Cookie?”
“Oh, I don’t know…” Gabrielle made her way over to the basket. “I don’t think we have any cookies in here, Dori.” She glanced over her shoulder to see not one, but two disappointed faces. “Xena.” She chuckled. “Stop with the puppy eyes, willya?”
Xena pouted, then slowly eased into a recumbent position on the couch, stifling a curse as she brought her injured leg up and leaned back, with Dori perched on her stomach. Her knee had stiffened and the joint was now very swollen and tight again, sending bursts of fitful pain up into her groin.
Between that, and the pounding headache from the day spent in the hot sun – just lying still in the company of her family was becoming more and more appealing every second. Now that Dori was here, the anxiety she’d felt knowing her daughter was on the road and in potential danger was fading. Xena had, she acknowledged to herself, her two most important things on earth here with her, and everything else…
Eh. It would work out, somehow. It always did.
Xena opened her eyes and studied the toddler sitting on her stomach. “Yeeess?” She rumbled, in her lowest voice.
It was nice having at least one creature on earth whom she didn’t intimidate in the slightest. Xena admired the baby’s round face, which held her partner’s character in it so strongly, and yet, already showed a lengthening whose planes were reflected in the mirror to her every morning. She reached a finger out, and Dori clutched it, tugging it back towards her with impressive, if infantile strength. Xena grinned as the child stuck the tip of her tongue out in concentration. “What’s the matter, shortie?”
“Boo come!” Dori tugged harder.
“Where are we going?” Xena bantered back. “You’re already sitting on me, y’know.” She flexed her abdominal muscles, bouncing the baby a little, making her squeal in delight.
“Boobooboobooboobooboo!” Dori chanted. “Boo, make hossies go fast, go see fishes. Poo poo go see fishies.”
Xena puzzled that one out. “You made the horsies go fast?” She asked.
“Go Go Go Go… “ Dori kicked her heels up, thumping her parent in the ribs. “Go fast!”
“Uh oh.” Gabrielle seated herself on the arm of the low couch. “They didn’t let her ride the wagon horses, did they?”
“Let her?” Xena tensed her muscles and lifted her upper body up, allowing the bard to slip underneath her. She settled back down with her head in Gabrielle’s lap, hard pressed not to release a sigh of contentment as her partner’s strong hands started a gentle massage of her temples.
“Did you ride the horses, Dori?” Gabrielle asked.
“Hossies go fast.” Dori stated positively. “Go see fishies.”
“Okay, so… you made the horses go towards the water.” The bard interpreted. “Then what?”
“Did you yell at them?”
“Good girl. Then what?”
“Hossies got mad. Hossies hop hop hop.” Dori bounced on Xena’s stomach.
“So, they tried to buck you off, but you stopped them, is that it?” Gabrielle removed a chunk of smoked meat from the basket she’d set by the couch and ripped it into several pieces, one of which she presented to her soulmate.
“Gabrielle, you’re making this up.” Xena laughed, around the mouthful of meat.
“Hey.” Gabrielle shook a finger at her. “I’m a bard. It’s what I do, remember? Now, Dori, after you stopped the horsies, and they tried to buck you off, what happened?”
Dori sucked on a finger, then crawled forward, reaching imperiously up for some booty. “Mm!”
“Okay, here.” Gabrielle gave her, not the meat, but a bit of waybread spread with some softened goats cheese. “What happened to the horses, Dori?”
Dori sat down and pulled a bit of the bread loose, then stuffed it into her mouth. “Num.” She smacked her lips appreciatively. “Good!”
“One track mind.” Xena drawled knowingly.
“Don’t you start that.” Gabrielle tweaked her nose lightly. “C’mon, Dori – tell me about the horses.”
“Hossies hop.” Dori burbled, her words mumbled around bread. “No see fishies, Poo poo see fishies. Cat see fishies.”
“So.. they must have been chasing after her, and when she stopped the wagon, they went flying past and into the water.” Gabrielle decided. “Gods, that must have been funny.”
Xena had her eyes closed again. “Oh, I’m sure they found it hysterical.” She remarked dryly.
Gabrielle cast a fond look down at the familiar profile. She smoothed the dark hair back off Xena’s forehead, admiring the clean planes and beautiful features. “Open wide.” She considered the obediently opened lips, and resisted the temptation to put a bit of root in them. Instead, she settled a fragrant piece of honeycake there, and watched Xena’s eyebrows lift as she chewed.
“Mmm.” A blue eye appeared.
“Mama!” Dori scrambled closer, having finished her bread. “Cookie!”
“Oh no, you haven’t had dinner yet.” Gabrielle protested.
“Neither have I.” Xena reminded her with a lazy grin. “Be fair, mama.”
The bard rolled her eyes. “Okay, fine.” She handed over a small chunk of the pastry to her daughter.
Dori grabbed it and stuffed it into her mouth with a look of diabolical glee that made both her parents laugh. Crumbs dropped all over Xena’s shift and the warrior started picking them up and eating them.
“Boo!” Dori protested, grabbing for Xena’s hand with it’s captured booty. She sprawled over the warrior’s chest, capturing her fingers as she popped them into her mouth and tugging fiercely. ‘Mine!”
“Ah ah!” Gabrielle scolded her. “I told you to be nice to Boo, Dori. Remember?”
“Mine.” Dori protested. “Mama!!!”
Xena stuck her tongue out at the baby, who lunged forward and grabbed it with both fists, making the warrior break out in helpless laughter.
“Dori!” Gabrielle gasped.
“Let go of that… it’s not yours!” The bard made a grab for her daughter’s hands. “Dori! That’s bad!” She freed her soulmate, who was still laughing. “And you stop laughing! That’s not funny, Xe!”
“Sure it is.” Xena reached a hand up and grabbed the bard’s tongue, and tugged it. “See?”
“Thstop dat!” Gabrielle bit down on the offending fingers. “Grrrrrr…”
“Grrrr.” Dori was delighted. She crawled up the front of Gabrielle’s body and pulled on the bard’s lip. “Cookie!”
“Ahguggh!!!” Gabrielle started laughing at the absurdity of it all. “Forgh!” She tossed pieces of cake at both dark haired pirates.
Dori released her and pounced on a piece, sitting down with a thump on Xena’s belly. “Mmm.” She grinned at her mother. “Good!”
“Mmhm.” Xena nodded, busy with her own mouthful. “Tastes almost as good as you do.”
“Gods.” Gabrielle just covered her eyes, and abandoned herself to the joy of the moment.
Then she realized what Xena had said. “XE!”
“How about honeybread?”
Gabrielle laid a piece of linen over her shoulder before she picked up the small basin of water and walked over to the bed. She set it down on the table alongside, and sat on the edge of the bed. “What are you doing, Dori?”
“Make good.” Dori was busy tying knots in the rope belt Xena had used to keep her toga secured with. She was seated in the circle of Xena’s right arm as the warrior laid there quietly, her breathing even and her eyes half closed.
“Yeah? Are you making something pretty for Xena?” Gabrielle soaked the cloth in the cool water, then wrung it out and laid it over her soulmate’s injured knee.
“Good.” Dori repeated, scowling a little in concentration. “Mama, go story.”
Gabrielle glanced over her shoulder at her daughter. “Say please, and I might do that.”
Dori gave her a puzzled look. “Mama?”
“Say please.” The bard told her again.
Gabrielle felt the bed move a little as its other occupant silently chuckled. ‘It’s not funny, Xena. I’m trying to teach her manners.”
“Gabrielle, she’s two.” Xena mumbled. “I didn’t have manners when I was two, and I bet you didn’t either.” One eye opened all the way and focused on her. “Don’t say it.”
“Me?” Gabrielle rinsed the cloth out again, and replaced it. “What did you think I was going to say?”
“That I still don’t have manners.”
“Tch tch. That’s not true.” The bard clucked at her. “You certainly do have manners, sweetheart.”
Xena grunted contentedly.
“Granted, sometimes they’re really bad manners, but..” Gabrielle teased her, getting a poke in the ribs. “Hey! Stop that.” She squirmed, then yelped as the poke turned into a tickle as Xena’s fingers slipped under the loose shirt she was wearing. “Eeee…”
Dori giggled. “Mama! Good!” She waved her rope at her mother, then abruptly discarded it to one side and crawled over to lie down next to Xena, hiccupping absently. Xena curled her arm around her and pulled her closer, and the toddler put her head down and got comfortable. “Booboobooo...”
“That’s me.” Xena rocked her a little. “You tired, shortie?”
“Yes.” Dori closed her eyes. “Good now.”
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances. The bard reached over her partner’s body and smoothed the cloth over Dori’s body, tugging a tiny sleeve into place before she ordered the thick, dark hair that curled around her baby’s head. “I missed her. I’m glad she’s here as much as she is, I think.”
“Mm.” Xena just watched her face, absorbing the warmth and love that lit it from within as Gabrielle studied their daughter. Of course, having Dori here complicated everything to an almost impossible degree, since they now had to keep their rambunctious offspring under supervision while they also achieved their growing number of objectives, but what the Hades, right? “I am too.” The warrior agreed. “Maybe she can help me out in some of the events.. what d’you think?”
Gabrielle chuckled a little. “In the adding insult to injury department?” She asked wryly. “Are you kidding? I don’t dare let her watch with me when you’re fighting.. good grief, Xena, she’ll be in the pit in a second attacking those monster’s ankles.”
Xena smiled, gazing affectionately at Dori. “She’s got a great spirit, that’s for sure.” She agreed, rubbing her thumb across Dori’s calf. “Fiesty.. fearless…”
“Just like you.” They both spoke together, eyes meeting.
Xena produced one of her most charming smiles, the full one that extended across her face and made her look almost adolescent. It was the one Gabrielle was incapable of resisting, and she responded with one of her own before she leaned over to rub noses with her soulmate.
“Aw, that’s so cute.”
Xena sighed. Gabrielle turned and peeked over her shoulder, to see Aphrodite perched on the table. “Hi.” She greeted the Goddess of Love. ‘You never got into that knocking thing, huh?”
“Like, on what?” Aprhodite asked, reasonably, using both hands to shape some invisible air. “I don’t do doors, remember?”
“Do you just pop into Ares bedroom like this?” Gabrielle pressed her.
The goddesses beautiful face crinkled into an expression of dubious horror. “Oh, babe, like.. ew.” She covered her eyes. “Just… ew. Ugh, the whips.. the chains.. the water bowls for the dog..”
“Three heads, dig?”
“Ah.” Gabrielle rubbed her jaw. “Okay, more information than I really needed, but.. did you need something from us, or were you just visiting again?” She glanced furtively at Xena, who seemed content to allow her to direct the discussion. Gabrielle suspected the pain was wearing on her partner, seeing the furrow in her brow, and the little, restless motion of her fingers. With a sigh, she rinsed and replaced the linen as Aphrodite got up and drifted over. “So what can we do for you?”
“Is that supposed to be that color?” The goddess inquired curiously, looking at Xena’s leg. “Boy, that’s ugly.”
Xena merely kept her eyes closed.
“No.” Gabrielle sighed. “It’s not. We had a little accident on the road here.”
“Oh.” Aphrodite seemed a little at a loss. “You mortals are so freaking fragile, arentcha?” She poked Xena’s toe experimentally. One blue eye opened and glared murderously at her. “Oo.”
“Stop that.” Gabrielle slapped at her hand. The sound got Dori’s attention, and the toddler squirmed around, pulling herself up with handfuls of Xena’s shift and peering at their visitor. “Now look what you did.”
Aphrodite perched on the edge of the bed, and waggled her fingers at Dori. “Hey, cutie!”
Dori gave the goddess a suspicious look, then put her head down on Xena’s shoulder and stuck her thumb in her mouth.
The goddess sighed. “Okay, enough fun for now. Listen.” She shifted and leaned forward a little. “Things are getting, like really icky.”
Xena gave the impression of rolling her eyes in disgust without moving a muscle. “You and your stupid games.”
“Hey.” Aphrodite gave her a look. “I’m one of the good guys, so knock it off, willya?”
Xena opened her eyes and glanced at her. “I’m in a bad mood.” She growled. “I had to spend the whole day getting garbage tossed at me because of some lousy bet going on up on Olympus, so you knock it off.”
“Xena.” Gabrielle put a hand on her thigh, and rubbed the soft skin lightly. “Aphrodite’s trying to help.”
The goddess sprawled on her side on the bed. “Gabrielle, you’re lucky I like you.” She stated. “Because otherwise.. “ She flicked her fingers at Xena’s supine form.
Gabrielle sighed. “Well, you know, the problem is she’s right.” She said. “All this is so Ares can have himself a war and win a bet, and frankly, that sucks.”
A shrug. “It’s what he does.” Aphrodite replied. “So anyway, listen up. This whole gig’s not worth all this hassle, you know? I mean, here you are, cooped up in this wack joint, with, like, truly hideous injuries and all that so..”
“So?” Xena asked, her blue eyes now alert.
“So why don’t you let me cut you a deal.” Aphrodite said. “My sister said she’d take care of that .. tax thing or whatever you guys were here for, and we’ll make sure you guys all get home in a jiff. How about it?” She watched the two faces across from her. “Oo.. I don’t like that look. Hey, we don’t want Ares to get in a bind, huh? He’s really a great guy.. nice to look at, fab at parties..”
“Aphrodite.” Gabrielle objected. “We’re trying to keep Athens from going to war. A lot of people will die, or get hurt. Don’t you think that’s important to us?”
Another shrug. “Mortals fight all the time. So what’s the big deal?” The goddess inquired seriously. “Hey, don’t get me wrong.. all that war stuff is like, so not my gig, but it goes on all the time. No biggie.”
“It’s a big deal to us.” Xena stated quietly. “So if I can stop this stupidity, I will.”
“Besides.. “ the warrior went on suddenly, in a peeved voice. “I’m lying here with a halfway broken leg, and having to face a field full of kids, half of them trained by Ares. What makes you so damn sure I’m going to win?”
Aphrodite rolled her eyes. “Oh, Xena, c’mon. You’re like Mount Vesuvius with heartburn, you know? How many mortals do you think we actually bother with? I mean, like.. hello? Warrior Princess? Anyone home?”
Xena remained silent, regarding the ceiling with quiet eyes. Her leg was killing her, and the thought of being blinked home, intact and untaxed, with all her family and friends was overwhelmingly tempting. Aphrodite did, in fact, have a point in that wars did happen, and men did kill each other all the time.
Was it worth her pain and effort? The slaves would live, she’d go home, Amphipolis would be relieved.
Ares would get what he wanted. Xena thought about that. Was she doing this just to spite him? To pit her ego against his, and mess him up just because she could? The warrior took a deep breath. “Tell you what.” She finally answered. “Ask me again in the morning.”
It was hard to tell who was more surprised, Aphrodite or Gabrielle. They were both looking at her like she’d grown a second head.
“Really?” The goddess asked.
Aphrodite got up and twitched her diaphanous gown into place. “Well.” Her face brightened considerably. “All righty then!” She floated up over the bed. “Catch you lovebirds in the morning!” With a flourish, she popped out, leaving a fine mist of golden dust that covered the bed and it’s occupants.
Gabrielle gazed quietly at her soulmate, as the faint sparkles came down between them.
Xena met her eyes calmly. “If my leg feels like it does now in the morning, I don’t think I can go any further, Gabrielle. We might as well get something out of this mess.”
The bard thought for a moment, then nodded in agreement. “You’re right.” She replied. “It just really surprised me to hear you say that.” She admitted. “But I’m glad you did.”
Xena gave her a satisfied look, and patted the bed surface next to her. “C’mon.” She invited. “At the very least, we’ll get a quiet night out of it.”
Gabrielle set the small oil lamp carefully to one side, then put the basin and her rag away and slipped onto the bed next to her partner. She reached up, smiling, to brush the golden dust Aphrodite had left behind off Xena’s eyebrows, letting her touch linger as she allowed herself to get lost in the deep blue pools gazing back at her. “Whatever you decide, I’m with you.”
“Go Boo.” Dori added sleepily, one hand tugging on Xena’s shift.
Xena exhaled in satisfaction as Gabrielle snuggled up next to her, winding an arm around her stomach while the bard settled her head down on the warrior’s shoulder. She felt a gust of warm breath against her collarbone, as she allowed her body to relax.
The pain faded a little. She’d refused the cup of herbs Gabrielle had offered her, knowing she didn’t dare put that kind of barrier between her senses and their surroundings. Now, she closed her eyes, and hugged the bard and their daughter close, content to let the morning bring what it would.
Gabrielle watched the sun rise, it’s first rays stealing through the window to paint the bed in rose tones. She lay quietly, listening to the waking sounds of the city around them, her body still curled around Xena’s.
The warrior was still deeply asleep, and so was their daughter, her small form still tucked up against Xena’s other side.
A minor miracle. Gabrielle took a deep, peaceful breath, and released it. She was content to remain where she was until her partner, or more likely, Dori, woke up, glad of the moments of peace the wait afforded her.
She’d slept well, and only just woken at the dawn, feeling rested and refreshed. The lingering stiffness she’d felt last night was gone, and she felt energized, almost anticipating the coming day.
Under her ear, she felt Xena’s steady heartbeat slowly pick up, and for a moment, she closed her eyes and just listened to it, memorizing the preciousness of the sound. The fingers of her left hand gently stroked the bare skin just below Xena’s ribcage, sensitive fingertips tracing the few, faded scars that interrupted the smooth surface.
She felt it the moment Xena woke up. It was like.. Gabrielle paused, having nothing really to compare it to. She just knew if she turned and looked up, the warrior would be looking back at her.
Gabrielle turned her head and looked up.
Xena smiled sleepily, and gave the bard’s back a friendly scratch.
“You’re feeling better.” Gabrielle commented.
Hearing voices, Dori stirred and woke up, wriggling around from her position on her stomach and looking up. Her eyes widened in delight as she spotted her parents and she gurgled, grabbing handfuls of Xena’s anatomy and pulling herself upright.
“Urgh.” The warrior grabbed the small hands and disengaged them. “Gotta start sewing straps on these damn shirts.”
Gabrielle just snickered. She reached over and took possession of her daughter, rolling over and getting up out of bed in a smooth motion. “C’mon, Dori, let’s get you changed.”
Xena put her hands behind her head and stretched her body out, arching her back and flexing the powerful muscles in her thighs. Experimentally, she lifted her injured leg, and allowed the knee to bend, delighted at the mild, residual ache that seemed to be the only thing remaining.
With a satisfied grunt, she tossed the light cover back and got up out of bed, walking over to the window to test the leg out. It ached a little, yes, but she didn’t’ really need to limp, and as she looked down, she noticed the swelling had disappeared and the redness had faded.
Great. The warrior walked over to the washing table and settled her chin on Gabrielle’s shoulder, watching her soulmate change their wriggling child’s diaper. Dori didn’t have a lot of patience about getting changed, and she always tried to flip herself over and squiggle away while the ends of the new fabric were being fastened.
“Hey… stop that.” Gabrielle grabbed a moving leg. “Dori, be still.”
“Mama, go slow!”
“Well, pardon me!” The bard snorted. “Tell you what, how about we get you potty trained, and I won’t have to do this!” She tweaked a small toe.
“Guff.” Dori scowled. “Want Guff, bad no fishies.”
“Never satisfied.” Xena remarked humorously. “You always want something, doncha shortie?” She reached past Gabrielle and tickled the baby’s belly. Dori grabbed for her hand and occupied herself with that long enough for the diapering process to be completed.
“And what is this sudden fascination with fish?” Gabrielle wondered aloud. “Or does she not really mean fish, she means just something to eat?”
“Maybe she just remembers me catching the fish, and us eating them?” Xena suggested. “I don’t think I ever showed her how I get the rest of our meals.”
Gabrielle made a face. “I remember the first time I saw you hunt.”
“Me too. You screamed.” The warrior recalled. “Almost scared me to death.”
“I did not.”
“Yes, you did.”
“Gabrielle, you did!” Xena protested. “Not that I blame you – that boar I shot squealed even louder.” It had been a truly comical scene, the warrior now admitted.
“Mm.” The bard grumbled. “It was a really ugly boar.”
“You made it taste great, though.” Xena complimented her, as she picked Dori up and swung her around a little. “Hey, do you still have..”
“The tusk? Yes.” Gabrielle smiled sheepishly. “Listen, I’m going to go grab some fresh bread out in the market, okay? I’ll be right back.”
Xena cradled Dori in one arm and put her other hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder. “We’ve got time.” She said. “I’ll grab us some fruit in here – why don’t you go see how the elders are doing.”
Gabrielle paused in mid motion as she was drawing some clothing out. “Yeah, I should.” She admitted. “I think part of my brain was trying to block that out.” With a slight nod, she looked up. “You’re right. I’ll go, and bring back some real breakfast on the way back. Will you two be all right?” A teasing grin took all hint of seriousness from her words.
“We’ll be just fine.” Xena bounced her charge a little. “Right, Dori?”
“Yes.” Dori appeared supremely contented with her elevated position “Boo get cookies.”
Gabrielle snickered. “You’re in trouble now. You’d better come up with something till I get back.” She gave her soulmate a little slap on the leg, then walked over to the wash basin to splash some water on her face before she got dressed.
“Am I in trouble?” Xena asked her daughter. “What makes you think I have cookies?”
“Cookies.” Dori started searching, pulling bits of Xena’s clothing around.
“No cookies down there.”
Dori grabbed Xena’s shirt collar and tugged it. “Gimme!” She scowled sternly at the warrior. “Be good!”
“Uh huh.” Xena carried her back over to where their bags were. “Where didja pick that up from, your Mama, right?”
“Mama be good.” Dori agreed.
“Always.” Xena said, sitting down and digging into the bag, searching for booty. After a moment, Dori commenced helping.
Gabrielle settled her staff firmly in hand, and headed off towards the inn their family was staying at. She had her old carry bag slung over her shoulder for her breakfast purchases, and she felt obscurely more comfortable now that she was back in her usual traveling garb.
As for the games, her staff competition wasn’t until late in the afternoon. Xena had a discus event midmorning, and an archery thing later on. Neither posed much danger for the warrior, that being reserved for the last day, tomorrow, when she’d have to face off against Denus in the fighting pit, while Gabrielle herself would have to suffer through the marathon.
Now that, the bard readily acknowledged, she had no chance at. She would do her best to finish, but long distance running had never been a skill of hers, and she and Xena both knew it. She’d halfway considered withdrawing from the contest, in fact, to give herself time to prepare for the Bard’s Challenge, but hadn’ broached the idea to Xena yet.
When she got back, she would, Gabrielle decided. She headed through the already active streets, her Amazon garb attracting some attention, but probably not near the attention she’d have gotten if the crowd recognized her from the games.
The air was a little cooler this morning, and she sucked it in with a sense of relief, wishing the fall wasn’t so far away. She was looking forward to the harvest this year, and the big festival they were planning. The little, snug theatre would be featuring one of her stories made into a play, and they had commitments from merchants as far away as Cirron to come to market.
It would be different, though, without Josc. Gabrielle pursed her lips. She’d known he was sick, and in a way, in her own mind, she’d started thinking about what might, or would happen when he went to his rest at last. But she hadn’t expected it to happen like this.
No. The bard regarded the stone buildings wistfully. You never did expect it, that’s what the problem was, wasn’t it? She never had, even with as much death as she’d seen, and it still hurt sometimes to think of the things she’d never gotten to say to people before they’d gone to Hades kingdom.
Like her father, for instance.
Gabrielle quietly put that thought aside, and picked up her stride, ducking down a side street as she followed the directions Ephiny had given her. She sensed a dangerous presence only seconds before two large figures blocked her path, but it gave her enough time to set herself and bring her staff up to a guard position.
“Hold it.” Celesta ordered “I just want to talk to you.”
“Do you always bring stinky thugs with you to friendly discussions?” Gabrielle asked, sparing a glance for the tall man in leather standing next to the beautiful woman. “Must put a crimp on your social life.”
“Athens can be a dangerous city.” Celesta replied. “I don’t like taking chances.” She looked over her shoulder, then pointed. “Let’s sit down over there and have a cup of something.”
Gabrielle considered the request, making her adversary wait before she finally nodded in agreement. “All right.” She followed Celesta over to the small outdoor café and settled in a seat across from her, resting her staff against her shoulder and curling one arm around it.
“All right.” Celesta leaned forward, her attitude all business and very unlike what it had been previously. “I’m not going to beat around the bush with you.”
“Oh, that’s good.” Gabrielle murmured. “My bush is taken.”
The other woman paused and regarded her, with a slight frown, then shook her head and continued. “You’re a very strange person.”
“Thanks.” The bard smiled at her, ignoring the thug who was standing with his hands clasped nearby.
“Tonight is the Bard’s Challenge.” Celesta said. “I want you to withdraw from it.”
Gabrielle regarded her for a moment. “You call me strange?” She inquired. “Why would I do that? I was looking forward to it, as a matter of fact.”
“Because if you don’t, I’ll have my friend there break every bone in Homer’s body.” Celesta replied, with a smile. “I know he’s an old friend of yours, and I know you don’t want to be responsible for that, you being such an upstanding young woman and all that.”
The bard had not been expecting that at all. She took a few moments to order her thoughts, as a server approached and offered a tray of mugs. “Thanks.” She took one and sipped it, trying to figure out what to do.
What would Xena do? Gabrielle exhaled, and gave a slight shake of her head. Xena would meet violence with violence, she knew – not her first choice of responses. “You kidnapped him?” She asked. “Was this contest that important?”
“I made sure he would not interfere with me.” Celesta replied. “And, yes it was. Bear that in mind. I will not be denied this. Anything I have to do to achieve my goals, I will do.”
“Is Homer safe?”
“Pathetically so.” The woman said. “Whether he remains that way is up to you.” She laced her fingers, a patently not nice expression on her face. “So. What will it be?”
“Let me talk to him.”
“Homer.” Gabrielle replied. “I want to see him – to see that he’s safe.”
Celesta’s eyebrow rose. “You don’t trust me?” She asked, in a snide tone of voice. ‘Why, Gabrielle. I’m mortally wounded.”
“Really? That would solve a lot of problems.” The bard commented mildly. “Let me talk to Homer, or the conversation’s over.” She continued, folding her hand over her staff and resting her chin against it.
Long, tapered fingernails clicked against the table’s tile surface. “If I take you to him, what makes you think you’ll ever leave again?”
Gabrielle smiled. “Because you’re not a stupid person.” She replied.
“Oh, is this where we get another threat from the famous Amazon?” Celesta leaned back, toying with her adversary. “I’m so scared.”
Gabrielle got up. “Time’s up.” She shifted her staff, rolling it behind her back and into her other hand. “So, what will it be?”
For a long moment, the auburn haired woman merely looked at her. Then she stood up and faced the bard squarely, her face hardening into a fierce intentness. “I’ll have him brought to a place. You show up, and you can talk to him, from a distance. If you try anything, I’ll have a crossbowman ready to spit him like a dog.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle agreed. “I’ll show up.” She said. “But if you try anything, all the crossbowmen in the world won’t help you.” She waited, as Celesta looked her up and down skeptically. Okay, so, she’s not as bright as I thought. “My partner will be there to ensure my safety.”
Celesta’s expression changed noticeably. It became wary, and very thoughtful. “Xena.” She murmured. ‘Of course.” She seemed to consider that for a moment. “When I’m ready, I’ll send for you. Be ready.” She stepped backwards until she was well out of Gabrielle’s range, then she slowly turned and walked off, her minion ambling behind her, never looking back once.
Gabrielle exhaled, and shook her head. “Damned if that wasn’t weirder than a bucket of sheep’s tails.”
“Madame?” The server inclined his head towards her curiously. “Was the cider sour?”
“No.” Gabrielle picked up her mug and sipped it. It was cold, and fragrant, in fact. “Give me a flask of it, would you? “
Xena liked cider. The bard drained her mug. And she’d need it, to swallow the latest complication Gabrielle was bringing back. A sigh. Maybe some cookies were a good idea too.
“Yeah, shortie?” Xena was sprawled on her side on the floor, sharing a handful of tidbits with her daughter.
“You go bad.” Dori picked up a piece of walnut, and looked at it before stuffing it into her mouth.
Xena reached over and took hold of Dori’s foot, not tickling it, just holding it in her hand. “I know you don’t like us to leave, but sometimes we have to, Dori.”
Dori scowled. “Bad.” She clambered to her feet and toddled over to where Xena was lying, plopping down next to her. “Boo go, no fun.” She complained. “Mama go, all shh.”
Xena combed her fingers through the toddler’s disheveled hair. “Lemme guess. No one will play with you, and no one talks to you, huh?”
“Dori, you scare the feathers off the bunch of them.” Xena told her daughter, with a rueful smile. “They’re afraid to hurt you, or that you’ll get hurt.”
“Play Boo. Play Guff.” Dori fastened her fingers on her favored playmate’s hand and tugged it. “Guff gots hat.”
Hat? “Did you put something on Ares?” Xena asked.
“Gots hat.” Dori put her hands on her head, covering her ears. “Guff no like.”
Why would they put a hat on the wolf? Xena wondered.
“Guff got owie.”
Ah! “Ares got hurt? What happened?” The warrior asked. “Did you hurt him?”
Dori shook her head gravely. “Guff go fishes, get owie.” She picked up a slice of fruit and held it, biting off the end with such a look of serious concentration it almost cracked Xena up. “Gramma got mad.”
“Yeah?” Xena mused. “I bet Gramma got really mad, huh?”
“Were you scared during the flood, Dori?”
Dori looked up, with a puzzled expression.
Xena thought about how to rephrase the question. “When all the water came, was that bad?”
The toddler thought about it for a minute, then grinned. “Fun!”
The warrior sighed. “You’re not scared of anything yet, are ya?”
Dori spread her arms out and waggled them. “Gush! Gush! Go fast!”
Xena chuckled softly and shook her head. “Dori, Dori, Dori.” She straightened a bit of Dori’s jumper. “I can’t really say much, because there’s not a lot f things I’m scared of either.” She told her daughter. “Matter of fact, there’s only one thing – you know what that is?”
Dori bit off part of her apple chunk and peered at it, then offered the other half to her buddy. “Good?”
Xena leaned closer and accepted the tidbit, taking it from the baby’s fingers and chewing it. “Thank you, Dori.” She smiled. “Good girl.”
Dori giggled happily, and crawled over even closer, snuggling up against Xena’s belly. “Booboobooboo.”
Xena put an arm around her daughter and hugged her. “Hey Dori?” The round, green eyes looked up trustingly at her. “I love you.”
“Love you.” Dori echoed, throwing her arms around as much of Xena as she could in an enthusiastic hug.
Sometimes, Xena acknowledged, as she sat up and cradled Dori in her arms, Sometimes life wasn’t fair, because if it was, she wouldn’t have any of this.
But? That’s just how things worked out sometimes.
A sound came out of place, and Xena went quite still, extending her senses.
“Shh.” Xena whispered, closing her fingers very gently across Dori’s lips. “C’mon.” Silently, she got to her feet and walked over to her bags, kneeling with Dori cradled in one arm to rummage in them with the other hand. She found what she was looking for by feel and pulled it out, hearing the baby’s gurgle of happiness as she recognized the object. “Let’s get you tucked in here, sweetheart, okay?” She murmured, slipping the carrysack around Dori’s body.
“Go fly!” Dori chortled.
“Not… exactly.” Xena got the straps fastened around her body and turned, rising and leaping across the room to get her fingers on her sword hilt just as the door burst inward, and chaos entered. “Hang on!” She yelled, as she met the first attacker, levering his sword out of his hand in one powerful upsweep.
There were a dozen, at least, armored, armed, and deadly serious. Xena got her back to the wall as quickly as she could and held her ground, forcing them to come at her in groups of twos and threes.
Idiots. The room was too small for that kind of mass assault. Xena ducked under one wild swing and slammed her elbow into the man’s jaw, snapping it backwards with a crunch. Then she whirled and nailed a charging man with a roundhouse kick, connecting with the side of his head and sending him sprawling into the wall.
They massed in front of her. “Morons.” Xena took two steps then launched into the air, flipping over their heads and landing, whirling in one smooth motion and kicking two of them in the rumps. They lunged forward and hit their heads on the wall, slumping down into an unconscious heap on the floor.
An attacker from the side. Xena met his blade with her own, her blood coursing now and the dark part of her rising fast, bringing a wicked chuckle from her throat as she easily outclassed her opponent, driving him backwards with short, powerful strokes that ended when she simply hooked his sword hilt with hers and kicked him the face, throwing him backwards over the table to crash on the floor.
“Boo Boo Boo!” Dori yelled unexpectedly, almost making her jump. She turned to see if the baby was in danger, and saw a mace coming at her. She ducked under it and closed with it’s wielder – too close to use her sword, so instead she flipped it in her hand and smashed him in the face with the hilts, spattering the stone floor with blood from his broken nose.
“Bitch!” A roar from near the door, and Xena turned, and leaped sideways, flipping once and landing to meet a savage bladed attack. Steel crashed against steel as they traded blows, and Xena felt a grin stretching her lips as she gained the upper hand, letting out a wild yell as she started shoving him backwards, his sword swinging desperately to meet hers, only barely deflecting it.
Two more bore in from the side, though and she found herself fighting all three at once. Her body moved in a semi circle, blade cutting the air so fast the individual strokes were impossible to see. Her body sensed and reacted with a solid, tempered strength, and as Xena kept them back, she could see in their eyes the beginnings of disbelief.
She let out another yell, this one ringing against the stone in triumph, and watched the doubt turn to terror.
One missed a stroke, and went down, and she had a clear shot at beheading him. She set her shoulders and swung.
Felt a tug on her hair.
Her heart lurched.
As the blade touched his neck, her wrists twisted slightly, and the flat of her blade slammed into the side of his head instead, knocking him senseless to the ground.
She reversed her blade and punched the next one. The third got a kick to the groin so powerful she lifted his body up a foot and dropped him, screaming, to the stone floor.
The noise stopped. Xena stood in the middle of the room, her chest heaving, the only one still standing. Men were curled up on the floor, crawling towards the entrance, half had run already, abandoning their compatriots.
Feeling sick, Xena pounced on the nearest conscious one and pulled him upright. She grabbed him by the leather surcoat and laid her sword right up against his neck. “Who sent you.” She rasped, staring him right in the eye. “Five seconds.”
He was young, and had pale eyes almost the same color as hers. He was sweating profusely, and she could feel him shaking in her grasp.
Xena released him, and stepped back, but maintained eye contact. “Tell him…” She smiled wickedly. “Thanks for the practice.” One arm extended, with the sword in it – rock steady as it pointed at the door. “Out.”
They ran, carrying their fallen comrades with them. Xena stalked to the door after them and slammed it shut, pausing and staring at it for a long moment. Then she exhaled in disgust.
Xena was silent for a few heartbeats before she answered. “Yeah?”
The warrior peered over her shoulder, to find Dori peeking back at her, the baby’s disheveled hair mixing with her own, identical in color. “Eyah.. they were bad. Bad fighters, bad smelling, bad looking.. they were bad, Dori.”
Dori pulled on Xena’s ear. “Boo good.” She pronounced positively. “Bad mens come, Boo bam bam bam, all go.” She said. “Good.”
“Think so, huh?” Xena murmured, thinking of the last minute change that had spared a life. She hadn’t wanted Dori to see that. To see her kill someone like that.
“Hop hop.” Dori hopped in her sack, thumping against Xena’s back. “Fun.”
Fun. The warrior felt a sense of relief. Dori was too young, yet, to understand, really. “Yeah, it can be fun sometimes.” She admitted, as she crossed the room and resheathed her sword. “But that’s not something you’re gonna ever know about, Dori.” Her hands unbuckled the straps and she brought the toddler around to face her. “You’re gonna be just like your mama, I promise you that.”
“Boom boom!” Dori wriggled. “Go more fly?”
With a soft laugh, Xena brought her close and hugged her. “Let me get dressed, then we’ll go fly and find mama, how’s that? I’m sure she’s managed to find some trouble by now.”
“Trouble.” Dori repeated. “Go mama!”
That about said it all. Xena sighed.
The inside of the inn was busy, as patrons enjoyed breakfast before they started off for the second day of the games. There were some furtive looks towards the corner table, which the Amazons had staked out, but there apparently enough strange visitors in Athens to make them a curiousity rather than an outright spectacle.
Ephiny leaned back against the wallrom and pushed her trencher away, propping a booted foot up against the trestle leg as she took a drink of her morning ale. Pony was sitting next to her, still munching, and Cait and Paladia were seated side by side across from them, also eating.
The door opened, and Ephiny spotted a familiar figure entering. She lifted a hand and waved, catching Gabrielle’s attention, and the bard immediately headed their way, easing her way through the crowded room and taking care not to bap anyone with her staff.
Ephiny was a little surprised that her friend wasn’t wearing the white robes of the games entrants, but had to admit the cool, forest tones of the Amazon garb suited her better.
In Ephiny’s very humble opinion, of course. Gabrielle herself seemed more comfortable in the thigh length wrap skirt and snug fitting top, which covered a little more of her lithe body.
“Morning.” The regent greeted the bard, as she approached. Eponin glanced up and waved a fork in greeting, her mouth full.
“Hi.” Gabrielle took a seat at the end of the table, between Cait and Pony. ‘Hey, you two.” She grinned at the two younger Amazons. “Thanks for keeping an eye on Dori.”
Cait put her bit of bread down. “It was absolutely lovely.” She told the bard firmly. “She must be awfully glad to be with you, though.”
“I think so.” The bard replied. “She’s got her favorite playtoy back. Which reminds me.. “ Gabrielle glanced at Ephiny. “Got any of her stuff with you?”
“Cyrene has it.” Ephiny pointed down the hall. “Second door, right hand side.”
“Thanks.” Gabrielle smiled, then got up and headed towards the corridor. “I’ll be right back.”
“I’ll order a plate for you.” The regent called after her. “No cereal, right?”
A pair of mist green eyes peered back over Gabrielle’s shoulder, and she shook her staff at her friend, before she disappeared into the darkness.
“Ah.” Ephiny exhaled. “Whenever I see her in that outfit, it brings back such memories.” One in particular, during the time Gabrielle had spent with them after Xena’s death, when the decision had finally come to her to exchange her travel garb for the full leathers and rank markings of an Amazon Queen.
Ephiny had seen the two dressers leave the Queen’s quarters, and she’d paused in the entrance, clearing her throat in lieu of knocking, her eyes fastened on the slight, fair haired woman within. “Gabrielle?”
Gabrielle had turned to face her. “Yes?”
“You look great.” Ephiny had entered the room, giving her friend an encouraging smile. Dark russet Amazon leathers graced Gabrielle’s body, carefully fitted around her slim hips and the newly muscled shoulders. They’d put her hair up, and added the finely carved badges of her rank, and the eyes that had looked back at her held recognition of how different the outfit made her look.
“Feels.. a little strange.” Gabrielle had admitted quietly. “But I guess I’ll get used to it.” She’d looked down at herself and frowned, tugging a bit of the ornate binding down.
“Here.” Ephiny adjusted one of the linked descenders that wrapped loosely around her biceps. She watched Gabrielle’s eyes fasten on her hands as she did it, the bard seeming pensive and far more docile than usual. “How are you doing?”
Gabrielle turned, and moved away, walking over to the table where her traveling bag rested. Next to it, folded neatly, lay her traveling clothes. She put a hand on the bundle, her thumb rubbing the fabric absently.
Ephiny had followed her, and reached out to take the clothes. “Here. Let me have them put this away for you. I..” She’d stopped, as Gabrielle’s fingers closed on the bundle, tendons suddenly standing out under her tanned skin.
“No.” She’d whispered. “D.. don’t’ take them.”
There had been a moment of awkward silence between them, before Gabrielle had spoken again. “If I put them away, it’s like saying goodbye, and I’m not ready to do that yet.” Her lips had tightened, and a blink had dropped a few tears down her cheeks. “Not yet.”
Ephiny had felt, just a tiny bit of impatience with her friend, she remembered. After all, she’d seen so much death in her life at that time, and had learned the hard lesson of moving on, and taking care of the living. “Gabrielle..” She’d moved closer, and laid a hand on the younger woman’s shoulder. “Listen, I know this is hard, but..”
“It is hard.” Gabrielle whispered. “I keep thinking I’ll turn around and she’ll be there.” She’d picked up the carved leather belt and looked at it. “She made this for me.”
That had surprised Ephiny almost to the point of speechlessness. “Gabrielle…”
“Sounds idiotic, I know.” Gabrielle had admitted to her. “But I can’t help it, Ephiny. I need some time.” She’d picked up the skirt, and the top and opened her bag, putting them inside to join the rest of her belongings and those few things Xena had left behind. Something had dropped out and rolled onto the table.
“Ah. Now I know why those bags are so heavy.” Ephiny had teased her gently.
And with a lost, achingly grief stricken expression, Gabrielle had picked the rock up and looked at it. “Xena gave this to me.” Gabrielle had replied. “She said it was from a.. s..secret place in the south.. near the sea.” Her fingers had turned the smooth stone. “We were going to go there n.. “
Shockingly then, she’d stopped, and with a soft oath, taken the stone and whipped it from her, sending it flying against the wall with a sharp crack, shattering the rock into pieces which danced to the floor.
Ephiny had not known what to say to her. She’d sensed the feelings running through the blond haired woman were so strong, they were dangerous, and she’d wondered if asking her friend to take the Queen’s mask at this moment in her life was truly a wise thing for her to do.
“Come on.” Gabrielle had wiped the back of her hand across her eyes, removing the tears. “Let’s get this over with.”
Full of doubt, Ephiny had followed her outside, no longer sure she was doing the right thing for any of them.
‘Hey.” Pony poked her. “Did you fall asleep?”
Ephiny gave her lover a droll look. “I was just thinking.” She replied. “But if I was sleeping, it’s your fault. You kept me up last night.”
Pony’s honey colored eyes widened and she glanced quickly across the table the watching junior Amazons.
Paladia smirked. Cait merely chewed her bread, a look of polite interest on her face.
“Come in.” Cyrene looked up from her place seated on the edge of the bed. “Ah! Morning, cutie.”
Gabrielle smiled, and entered, closing the door behind her. “Hi mom, hi dad.” She greeted her in laws. “how are you?”
Johan was lying in bed, his hands folded over his stomach. “Tired and glad to be in a dry spot, Gabrielle.” He told her. “I hear you had a tough trip up here yourself.”
“A little.” The bard admitted. “Eph told me about Josc.”
Cyrene got up and walked over, circling the bard and giving her a hug. “It was an accident.” She said. “The water just came down too fast, took the horses’ feet out, and swept us in front of it. He got caught under a tree.”
Gabrielle sighed, returning the hug. “For no purpose.” She replied, backing off to look Cyrene in the eye. “Mom, why?”
The innkeeper gazed unhappily at her. “I don’t know if I have a good answer for that, Gabrielle.” She motioned for the bard to sit down, then reseated herself with a wince on the bed. “Eponin said Xena got hurt?”
Distraction. Gabrielle recognized it when she saw it, having used it often enough herself. “She got kicked by a horse.” She said. “She’s all right, thought. What made the elders decide to come to Athens?”
“Arrogance.” Johan said, shortly. “Got an idea they was important people, and they were coming here to prove it.”
Cyrene eyed her husband. “Jo..”
“S’truth, and we both know it.” The ex merchant stated firmly. “I argued with those fools for half a day, and got told to never mind.” He turned and sat half up, leaning on one elbow. “They shoulda stayed home, and we should have too.”
“Josc was a sick man. He had no business going on the road, and I told him that.” Johan went on. “Damn fool was just too damn stubborn.”
Gabrielle just sat, listening quietly as she clasped her hands around her staff and leaned against it. “There have been times these past few days when I wish *we’d* stayed home.” She told them. “There’s just so much going on.. and then we heard you were coming and..”
“You heard?” Cyrene interrupted her.
“Aphrodite told us.” The bard explained. “There’s a whole big thing going on with bets, and the gods, and… “ She exhaled. “It’s just too complicated. Anyway, to make a very long story short, Xena and I are trying to win the games so the town’s taxes will be forgiven.”
“Ah.” Johan nodded. “Better plan than we had.”
“Didn’t speaking to them help?” Cyrene asked.
“The council’s not in session. We got here too late, and by then.. “ A shrug. “Anyway, besides that, I entered the Athen’s Bard Challenge, which is tonight, so if you’re not doing anything, I could use some friendly faces there.”
Johan and Cyrene exchanged glances. “But.. why would you do that?” Cyrene spluttered.
“To keep this really nasty woman from taking over the Bard’s Academy, but..”
“The Bard’s Academy?” Johan asked.
“Yeah, but the nasty bard actually kidnapped an old friend of mine, and she’s threatening to beat him up if I don’t’ withdraw, so I kind of have to get back to the games arena so I can find Xena and..”
“Gabrielle?” Cyrene held her hand up.
“Is it always like this when you two travel?”
The bard scratched her chin. “Pretty much, yeah.” She finally agreed, a touch sheepishly.
“Well.” Johan laid back down.
Cyrene gazed at her daughter in law. “Honey, I’m sorry we made things worse for you.” She said quietly. “I’ll come back with you and get Dori, if you two are so involved in everything here, she’s going to be impossible to keep track of.”
Gabrielle thought about that. “Let me talk to Xena first.” She said. “I mean, I know you’re right, but with all the stuff that’s going on, she might feel better to have Dori with us.” A tickling suddenly erupted in her gut, accompanied by the oddest shiver that started at the back of her neck and went right down her spine. She sucked in a breath in pure reaction and got up. “Got something I need to go check out.. did you..”
Cyrene pointed. “Dori’s bag’s there.”
“Thanks.” Gabrielle grabbed the sack and headed for the door, surprised by tingling in her body and the eager flex of her fingers around her staff.
It was almost as if she were looking forward to battle. Gabrielle almost stopped short as the realization registered, almost overcome with a sense of confusion and dismay. She tried to dismiss the thought, but it was impossible to ignore the pumping of her heart, and the darkling chills that on one level were almost sensual in their intensity.
In the darkness of the hallway, she stumbled to a halt, leaning against the wall with her eyes closed, and her hands shaking.
“Gabrielle!” Ephiny’s voice was sharp.
She heard footsteps, and then felt the warmth of her friend’s hand as she took hold of her arm. “Eph..”
“Come over here and sit down.” The Amazon urged her. “Artemis’ handbasket, you’re white as a piece of new parchment.”
“No…” The sensation was slowly fading, and Gabrielle was able to straighten up, the chills subsiding and her heartbeat slowing and steadying. “I’m okay.” She felt her shoulders relax. “I just need a bite to eat.” She told her friend. “Got an apple or something?”
“Get over here.” Ephiny scolded her. “I’ve got a whole damn plate of the blasted things.”
Gabrielle felt the last traces of urgency leave her, and acknowledged that Xena probably handled whatever it was that had caused the jolt. “Okay.” She allowed Ephiny to lead her over to the table.
But she couldn’t dismiss what she’d felt.
Or where it had come from.
Or that it hadn’t been entirely unpleasant.
Gabrielle nibbled a fig, thinking about that.
Xena twitched her light cape straight, and made for the door, Dori securely strapped to her back in her carrysack. She wasn’t expecting to need her weapons today, but she had her sword strapped to her back anyway, and her chakram was seated on her hip, underneath the linen cape. “Dori, remember now, leave the sword alone, okay?”
“Bbbbbooo.” Dori tugged on her hair contentedly, apparently tying it into knots. “Go have fun!”
Xena chuckled and put her hand on the doorlatch, only to pause when she sensed the presence of an unseen watcher behind her. She stopped, and turned, and only had a second or so to wait before Aphrodite materialized in front of her, stark naked. “Whoa, hold it right there, Leatherbabe.”
Xena’s eyebrows lifted sharply. “You forget something?” She asked.
Aphrodite rolled her eyes. “Okay. Ms. Leatherbabe. Or is it, Warrior Princess Leatherbabe?”
“I swear, you sword jockeys are all alike. All ego and bluster.. I swear, I just have to wonder, like, what Gabrielle sees in you, because I…”
“HEY!” Xena had sucked in a lungful of air and used it to good purpose.
“Put some damn clothes on before my kid goes blind!” The warrior barked.
The goddess looked down, then back up. “Oh.” She snapped her fingers. “Like, why didn’t you just say so?” A waft of pink fabric now draped her body as it floated in mid air. “Happy now?”
Xena put her hands on her hips. “Yeah. But you won’t be in a second.” She remarked, aware of Dori’s fascinated eyes peering over her left shoulder. “Your brother couldn’t resist, he had his thug send a bunch of goons after me this morning.”
Aphrodite regarded her. “Mondo el Stupido.” She shook her head. “So, let me guess. You’re gonna have to live up to your reputation and stay in the games, right?”
The goddess threw up her hands. “I give up. I told that goofy hunky machobrain I had this taken care of. What does he do?” She gave Xena a severe look. “You know? I bet he did it on purpose just because he gets off when you fight.”
“Shh.” Xena covered Dori’s ear with one hand. “C’mon.”
A snort. “Like, she lives with you two and she doesn’t know what nookie is?” Aphrodite snickered. “Please. Don’t even.”
Xena was shocked to find herself blushing.
“Yes, you do, don’t you, cutie?” Aphrodite address Dori, who was peering at her with interest. “Don’t you know what that is?”
“Bck.” Dori pointed at her, then wrapped her arms around Xena’s neck and put her head down on the warrior’s shoulder. “Booobbboooobobobbooo.” She warbled softly.
The goddess of love repressed a smile. “Hey, that kid actually likes you, doesn’t she?”
“You sound surprised.” Xena remarked.
“I am.” Aphrodite replied frankly.
A little stung, Xena turned her head and looked at Dori, who gazed adoringly back at her. “What about it, Dori? You like me?”
“Love Boo.” The toddler answered, reaching up and clutching at Xena’s jaw.
Xena smirked at the watching goddess. “What about her?” She pointed at Aphrodite. “She’s mean, huh? We don’t like her.”
Dori scowled. “Bck.”
“Hey!” Aphrodite protested. “I am so not mean. I’m the goddess of Love, remember?”
“Selective, apparently.” Xena looked at her, pinning her with a cool glance.
“Lighten up!” The goddess floated over, frowning. “I was just jazzing you, Xena.” She held out a hand to the now glaring Dori. “C’mon, sweetie.. don’t listen to her.”
“Don’t you tell my child that.” Xena stepped back, her verbal hackles raising higher.
Aphrodite paused, and studied her curiously. “You didn’t used to be this touchy, did you?” She asked, seriously.
Did I? Xena stared steadily back at her. “You come in here and tell me you’re surprised my daughter likes me, and you think my objecting to that makes me touchy? Olympus needs new dictionaries.”
The goddess exhaled, then reversed her position and floated to the ground, putting her feet on the stone floor and adjusting her diaphanous gown. “Okay.” She held both hands up. “Bzzt. Snap the fingers, reverse the whole scene we’ve just had here. We are so, like not communicating.”
Xena silently acknowledged her own prickliness and decided she must be close to one of her irregular cycles. She perched on a corner of the table and rummaged in Gabrielle’s usual carrybag, removing a trail bar and taking a bite of it as she waited for the goddess to continue. Her peripheral vision caught a small fist extending itself by her jaw, and she broke off a tiny piece of the bar and handed it over. “Hungry, shortie?”
“Cookie!” Dori mouthed the offering with approval. “Good!”
Aphrodite’s expression softened. “So you’re gonna go open a crock of whup out there, huh?”
Xena shared another bite of her snack before she answered. “I’m not going to stand by and watch two cities go to war for no good reason if I can do something about it.” She said. “So yeah, I’ll give it the best I’ve got, and so will Gabrielle, and if an entire city of pampered, trained, well fed, well oiled athletes can’t beat us.. it’s because we wanted it more and ours was the better cause.”
The goddess sighed theatrically, and propped her chin on her fist. “You’re starting to sound like my brother.”
“Ares?” Xena’s voice rose sharply.
“Hercules.” Aphrodite replied. “And isn’t that a kicker?”
Rolling her eyes, the goddess lifted her fingers to snap them. “Mortals.” She paused a moment, her eyes tracking up and down Xena’s body. The edge of Aphrodite’s lip twitched a little. “Well, mostly.” There was a sound like a soap bubble popping, and she was gone, leaving behind a scent of roses, and a tall figure standing so still it almost seemed carved in the very stone.
Dori finally got restless, and she bounced against Xena’s back. “Boo?”
Slowly, the dark head turned and pale blue eyes regarded her. “Yeah?”
“Yeah. In a minute.” Xena walked over to the bed and sat down on it, resting her elbows on her knees and studying her folded hands between them.
It wasn’t as though she hadn’t considered it. Wasn’t as though she and Gabrielle hadn’t discussed it. She wasn’t stupid enough to think some of the things she did fell within the normal scope of mortal possibility. But she’d never had any confirmation one way or the other before, and now, just hearing it was surprisingly shocking to her.
Shocking, and annoying. Xena regarded her forearms with a scowl, acknowledging the fact that she wanted to believe everything she accomplished was due to her own will, and a lot of hard work. She didn’t want any help, didn’t want there to be a reason other than her own skills for what she did.
She coveted her mortality.
At least, Xena considered, the ‘mostly’ was in a bizarre way comforting in it’s insignificance. If it had to be true, then let it be just the barest of touches, hardly anything, really.
“Boo?” Dori pulled on her ear. “More?”
Just enough for this. Xena reached over her shoulder and tickled her daughter. “Hold on to your diaper, shortie.” She got back up and gathered her composure, then headed for the door.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Ephiny asked, for the tenth time, as she studied the woman seated next to her.
“Getting in some extra practice for this motherhood thing?” Gabrielle retorted. “Ephiny, would you relax? Please? You’re worse than Xena.”
“Xena.” The regent nodded thoughtfully “Good idea. I’ll go find her and tell her you almost passed out.”
“She’s a healer.” Ephiny continued, as if she hasn’t heard. “I bet she’s got lots of herbs she could give you for that.”
“Ephiny.” Gabrielle’s voice dropped several notes as she drew the name out. “I’m fine. Cut it out.”
Hazel eyes evaluated her. The bard’s color had returned to it’s normal golden health, and she seemed to be acting normally, having eaten several slabs of bread and cheese along with a piece of fruit. There was, however, just the faintest hint of edginess around her, and Ephiny hadn’t missed the slow, repetitive motion of Gabrielle’s fingers against her staff that was very close to being a fidget.
“Cait.” Gabrielle turned to address the younger Amazon. “Would you do a favor for me?”
“Absolutely.” Cait responded immediately, leaning closer. “Anything.”
Now that, Ephiny noticed, got a familiar, relaxed grin from her friend.
“We had a young man working with us called Mikah. He was supposed to go up to the gate and watch for all of you, but we haven’t heard from him since yesterday. Do you think you could look around, and see if you could find him?”
“Certainly.” Cait agreed. “What does he look like? Pally and I will find him, straight off.”
Paladia glanced up, then rolled her eyes, shook her head, and returned her attention to her plate.
“Well… “ Gabrielle considered. “A little like you, really.. he’s about my height, he has straight, pale blond hair like you do, and he’s wearing a servant’s toga.”
“Right.” Cait nodded. “Up by the walls then, is it?”
“Yes. He’s also.. “ The bard paused. “He’s wearing a necklace that has a small flower in the center, and a little gold bull hanging down from it.” She said. “I’m a little worried about him – he should have come back to the games house last night.”
“We’ll find him.” Cait got up, carefully wrapping her last bit of bread around a piece of smoked lamb before she took hold of the back of Paladia’s leathers and simply started walking off. “Let’s go, Pally.”
“Hey!” The bigger woman yelped, being pulled backwards off her chair. “Hey! Hey! You nutball! Cut that.. ow!” With a thump, Paladia went over backwards, then scrambled to her feet and pulled herself free from Cait’s implacable grip. “You’re such a.. “
“Ah ah.!” Cait gave her a look. “We’ve got a job to do.”
Paladia turned and gave Gabrielle a look over her shoulder, sighing when the bard just grinned, and waggled her fingers.
Ephiny watched them leave, then chuckled. “Those two.” She shook her head. “Who’d have ever thought they’d turn out the way they did?”
“I did.” Gabrielle remarked. “I told Xe they would, and she accused me of having excessively romantic notions.”
“Hm.” Ephiny chuckled. “I remember the first time I made a crack about the two of you being involved.” She rolled her eyes. “Boy, did I get laughed at.”
One of Gabrielle fair eyebrows arched sharply.
Ephiny put a hand on her friend’s arm. “It was after you stopped our war with the Centaurs.” She explained. “Don’t get radical on me.”
“Oh.” The bard picked up a grape and fingered it. “Yeah, I guess the hero worship was showing pretty badly about then, huh?” She spared a smile for her younger self. “I remember looking across the campfire at Xena that night, and seeing the marks Melosa had put on her, and just being so overwhelmed at knowing she’d done that on my behalf.” A pause. “My champion.” Gabrielle exhaled, and shook her head a little. “Even now, I say that and it gives me chills.”
It had been a very dark night, a new moon in fact, only the stars overhead giving any glimmer of light outside their campfire. Gabrielle had sat quietly on her side of the blaze, her new staff resting across her lap as she studied it’s contours and tried to get used to the feel of it.
On the firestone, a pot bubbled softly, releasing the scent of rabbit stew into the air, and Gabrielle had leaned forward to give it a stir as she snuck a glance at her quiet companion nearby.
Xena was leaning back against Argo’s saddle, with one knee raised and both of her hands clasped loosely around it. In the orange glow, Gabrielle could see the bruises and cuts she’d gotten in the fight with Melosa, though the warrior seemed herself oblivious to them.
It wasn’t as though she’d never seen Xena hurt before, Gabrielle had told herself, but this time…
It was different.
Gabrielle put her staff down, and picked up the bigger of their two bowls. She carefully ladled it full of stew, then picked up one of the loaves of bread she’d gotten from the village they’d past just before sundown and carried it over to her friend.
Xena had looked up as she approached, and their eyes had met as Gabrielle knelt down next to her, offering the bowl to her in respectful silence.
“Thanks.” Xena had taken the dish from her. “Are we being formal for a reason?” She’d half joked.
Gabrielle had sat down then, borrowing a tiny corner of Xena’s furs, and hugged her knees to her chest, feeling nervous, grateful, and just a little overwhelmed. “I was just thinking about what happened.”
“With the Amazons?”
“It worked out.” Xena stated.
“I know, I just..” Gabrielle struggled with an emotion she could hardly even put a name to. “You.. fought Melosa… f.. for me.”
Xena’s dark head cocked to one side, a faintly puzzled look appearing on her face. “Of course I did, Gabrielle. She’da beaten you to a pulp. “ The warrior said.
“But you got hurt.” Gabrielle studied the very visible bruises.
“Nah.” Xena shrugged.
“Yes, you did, Xena. I can see that.” The bard had argued. “Can I get you.. some salve, or some.. or.. “
“Gabrielle.” Xena put a hand out and held the bard’s wrist.
The bard had swallowed hard, and met those pale blue eyes timidly. “Y..yes?”
“It’s all right.” The warrior’s voice had gentled unexpectedly. “They’re just a few cuts.”
Driven by something deep inside her, Gabrielle covered Xena’s hand with her own, squeezing the long fingers as she looked intently into her friend’s eyes. “It’s just… “ She’d had to pause. “I’ve never had a champion before… and.. it’s a really nice feeling.” Her voice cracked on the last words, and she had to drop her gaze, as her throat tightened and a lump formed.
She felt so strange, almost like she was a different person, this half naked kid with a stick she’d more likely trip over than hurt anyone with pretending to be not only grown up but an Amazon to boot. She felt Xena loosen her grip on her hand, and flushed with embarrassment.
Until she felt the warmth of Xena’s palm on her cheek and she’d lifted her head in surprise.
“I’ve never been anyone’s champion before.” The warrior had said, simply. “You’re right. It is a nice feeling.” Xena had hesitated a moment. “And I can’t think of anyone else I’d rather fight for.”
Under those stars, on that dark night, by that small fire, Gabrielle suddenly felt ten feet tall, and more special than she’d ever thought she could feel in all her life. “Does that mean you’ll always be my champion?” She’d given the warrior a big grin.
Xena had smiled back, with a quiet, wistful look in her eyes that Gabrielle had not understood until much later. “Always.”
Ephiny watched her curiously. “What does it feel like knowing you could do it yourself now?” She asked, her train of previous thought derailed. “You can, you know.”
The bard’s jaw shifted slightly, then she looked up and met Ephiny’s gaze, those light green eyes once so open now layered with quiet shadows and shades of experience. “I wouldn’t.” Gabrielle answered softly. “Not as long as she can.”
Ephiny absorbed that. “Is that how she wants it?”
“That’s how I want it.” The bard answered.
“All right by me.” The Amazon regent agreed quietly. “So. Now tell me about this… what is it, Bardic challenge? Gabrielle, how do you get involved in all of this stuff in less than a week?”
“Don’t ask.” Gabrielle propped her chin up on her fist and gave her friend a humorous look, glad of the change of subject. “I didn’t mean to. I just stopped by the Academy to look up an old friend, and bam – next thing I know they’re asking me to help out to keep this other bard from taking over.”
“We did that once.”
Gabrielle frowned, then let out a tiny laugh. “Yeah, I guess you did, didn’t you?”
“Well, we’ll be there cheering.” Ephiny assured her. “One pocket of friendliness in a sea of citified centaur butts with bad attitudes.” She indicated the bag Gabrielle had slung over her shoulder. “Going shopping? Mind some company?”
Ephiny liked shopping as much as Xena did, and Gabrielle knew that. “Sure.” She agreed, getting to her feet and stretching. “I’d love some company.”
“Great. C’mon, Pon. Let’s go shopping.” Ephiny grabbed her partner and hauled her upright. “You need some new boots.”
“No I don’t.” Pony looked down.
“Sure you do.” Ephiny bumped her towards the door. “What about that new knife you wanted?”
“See? Toldja you needed one.”
Gabrielle chuckled, as she led her Amazon guard out the door and towards the market.